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Building commitment to evidence-informed development policy and practice: sharing knowledge and ideas

By 11/10/2016


John Young and Jessica Mackenzie at the Knowledge Cafe at WWGS16 (Josephine Tsui/ODI 2016, CC BY-NC 4.0)

As part of the What Works Global Summit 2016, John Young and Jessica Mackenzie of the Research and Policy in Development programme at the Overseas Development Institute hosted a ‘knowledge café’ on building commitment to evidence-informed development policy and practice. Here they share some of the ideas discussed by attendees.

For the uninitiated, a ‘knowledge café’ is an informal, relatively unstructured way of discussing a topic, which allows ideas to emerge through conversations – rather like having coffee with a friend. There is typically an initial plenary presentation, introducing the subject – often with an illustrative story. This is then followed by a series of small group discussions, between which participants are encouraged to rotate (for example, every 15 minutes). The café closes with everyone sharing back to the wider group one thing that they found interesting from the conversations, or would pursue.[1]

ODI held one such knowledge café at the What Works Global Summit. It aimed to stimulate ideas around the challenge that our programme, Research and Policy in Development (RAPID), often faces: how to build commitment to evidence-informed development policy and practice. A range of individuals and organisations attended – researchers, practitioners and monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL) representatives from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Hewlett Foundation, International Alert, Save the Children, Oxford Policy Management, Kings College, FHI360, Transparency International, and more. And, as we opened the session at the venue in Bloomsbury – the historic heart of London art, literature and medicine – we were excited to hear from our participants’ wealth of knowledge and experience.

To start things off, John Young, Director of RAPID, delivered the initial plenary and introduced the programme’s work.

RAPID has been working to promote greater use of research-based evidence in development policy and practice for the last 15 years, and over that time RAPID and others have identified many approaches that can help – such as having a clear policy objective, engaging with policymakers, and communicating in an effective way that goes beyond writing a report that sits on a shelf.

But the real problem seems to be generating the commitment needed to achieve this from all stakeholders in the evidence-to-policy system – and particularly, governments. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Often it’s as though, at the last minute, someone somewhere in the system loses faith with the idea, or fails to follow through, despite all the right things having been done up to that point.

Jessica Mackenzie, RAPID Research Fellow, illustrated this with three programmatic examples from her own experience: one, where it had worked, another where it had got stuck – at least temporarily – and the last where it had partially worked.

We started the small group discussions with the question: ‘What could we, the sector, do to increase the commitment of stakeholders throughout the system to make more use of evidence in policy and practice – and what could RAPID do to help?’ A lively set of discussions ensued; participants were so busy sharing experiences that it was hard to get them to move groups! But back in the final plenary several interesting ideas emerged that RAPID will be considering in our future internal strategic planning processes. Here are just a few that we thought stood out:

  1. If commitment is (as some believed) less of an intellectual phenomenon than an emotional one, then change doesn’t come from reading journal articles, but from personal experience and connection to individuals. So what more immersive approaches could be used to foster commitment by policymakers to positively influence their decisions? The World Bank’s Reality Check Approach was highlighted as an interesting model in this regard.
  2. If commitment can be traced to certain key personality traits (for example, how analytical a particular policymaker is) – which we don’t currently map – then is this something we should be more explicitly aware of? Many research programmes in the field don’t bother trying to convince policymakers who are not convinced by academic analysis. What other ways of using research-based evidence might be more effective in those situations?
  3. Many people described the importance of long-term relationships with policymakers, who were often researchers early in their careers and then move from department to department. Short-term funding and the academic demands on researchers make it difficult to maintain these relationships, and it is difficult to get funding to maintain relationships with people who move out of research and into policy positions, often in different sectors. How can researchers be incentivised to do this?
  4. It is not just about commitment from government policymakers, in-country; there is also a need to foster more commitment by donors – to provide longer term and less narrowly focused funding, and to provide resources to bring together people from different programmes to cultivate cross-programme learning about what works. Research and evaluation are often resourced from different funding streams, often by different departments. There’s a natural link here that could be better used. What can be done to encourage donors to fund this?
  5. We need to better understand how to incentivise commitment beyond funding specific projects. Building long-term relationships is clearly key, but in an era of increasingly open-source evidence, and growing civil society interest in policy processes, pressure from civil society, the media, and opinion leaders could be a powerful influence. More research on this would be useful.

We need to unpack what we mean by policymakers; who’s commitment is needed? One reflection from VakaYiko, a programme that policy research organisation INASP is working on, is that the needs of a private secretary or minister will differ enormously from the needs of a government researcher. We need to understand what policymakers need at different levels, and within different government timeframes and cycles.

It was, all in all, a valuable discussion – and these were only some of many ideas, which we look forward to feeding into our future work. At least three participants also said they looked forward to using the concept of knowledge cafés more in their work too. If you would like to know more about how we will take this forward in RAPID, drop us an email (,

For more on the What Works Global Summit, see 

[1] For more on knowledge cafes see the following sources: How to design a Café Setting the context and triggering the conversation