How do we manage the delicate balance between ‘technical’ and ‘social’ in translating evidence to action?
On the 29 June we held the inaugural Research Uptake Roundtable with guests from the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), The Impact Initiative for International Development Research, and Health Systems Global (HSG) who discussed the realities of translating evidence into action.
Nasreen Jessani from Johns Hopkins University and the HSG Translating Evidence to Action Thematic Working Group facilitated the discussion and was joined by panellists: Amy North from UCL, Danielle Doughman from APHRC, and Benjamin Uzochukwu from the University of Nigeria and the HSG Translating Evidence to Action Thematic Working Group.
The impetus for the webinar was the edited collection of case studies jointly funded by the Impact Initiative and the ESRC, commissioned to find and synthesise the ‘aha moments!’ within particular research contexts that enabled evidence to have an impact on policy and practice. The collection uncovered four layers of reality when mobilising knowledge for development: individual and collective capacity, individual relationships, group dynamics and networks, and finally, cultural norms and politics.
Amy North began the webinar with an overview of the GEGPRI project she was involved with, which conducted research on gender, education, and poverty reduction in the UK, Kenya, and South Africa. The project used the ‘middle space’ as a way of mediating influence with policy and practice. It found there was a significant role for stakeholders working in the ‘middle space’ (between local and national levels), such as bureaucracies, NGOs, community-based organisations, trade unions, and faith-based organisations. These stakeholders had a significant impact on how policy was enacted on the ground.
Amy outlined the quasi-action research design for the project, which embedded discussion within the research process itself. There were opportunities for the research team and the participants to scrutinise the findings and also, importantly, the assumptions within the research. This process allowed researchers to cross the insider/outsider boundary but with different results in Kenya compared to South Africa.
Amy concluded her overview of the GEGPRI research project, highlighting how the experience showed: the importance of engaging with stakeholders in the ‘middle space’ (not exclusively using either the top-down or bottom-up approaches to research impact); that successful engagement requires close attention to power dynamics within organisations but also between researchers and participants; and finally, that it is crucial to pay close attention to the social and political spaces that stakeholders occupy.
Next, Danielle Doughman explored how APHRC worked directly with decision-makers within the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Danielle began by noting the challenges at board level of the Global Fund which included: lack of adequate technical capacity, lack of resources, and lack of time. To address these challenges a meeting was called to adopt a joint governance framework to increase meaningful participation with the board which would lead to evidence-informed investment in health. The framework established a technical assistance centre and a Bureau for Africa. APHRC was asked to join the process, and were commissioned to provide technical support to the Africa constituencies within the newly established Bureau, and to help foster engagement. APHRC disseminated briefing notes, coordinated consensus around issues, and assessed the impact of board decisions. Danielle gave a compelling example: there were sometimes over 1,000 pages of background information, which was impossible for board and committee members to navigate on their own.
Danielle offered four key points that facilitated the evidence-to-policy interface:
- Personal investment by a core group of influencers helped the most.
- Given that it was uncharted territory, it took a group commitment to evolve the process over time. There was no blueprint for technical assistance.
- Tailoring the technical assistance to individual needs was important, e.g. getting right the complexity of information required and understanding the culture and vocabulary of the Global Fund. Knowledge brokering is neither push nor pull alone.
- APHRC had to build a reputation as a trusted broker, providing non-biased technical evidence. There is a temptation to favour the constituency over consensus, but being a neutral broker lessened the chance that evidence would be used selectively.
Finally, Benjamin Uzochukwu spoke about the 15-year-old Health Policy Research Group he is involved in, which has been interacting with both researchers and policymakers. Benjamin unpacked his categorisation of strategies for getting research into policy and practice:
- When policymakers seek answers to problems from researchers
- When a study is complete, there is active dissemination of findings in policy briefs and newsletters, for example
- When a policymaker initiates research, involving stakeholders in designing the research and embedding them in the process. For example, this can be done by providing per diems
- When facilitating engagement between researchers and policymakers
Benjamin stressed that the main thing that facilitates getting research into policy and practice is stakeholder engagement, and building trust and relationships. There is of course the need for quality results and the right packaging of these results, but without relationships it is difficult. Benjamin noted that stakeholders must be engaged deeply and continuously. They must be embedded in the research process, in the design and the evaluation, and even in co-production of the research itself. Researchers need negotiation skills as they need to interact in various fora.
Q) The issue of trust is critical. Trusting relationships take a long time to build and project timelines can be short. How can you bridge the timelines and what strategies can be used
Amy responded that trust had a very significant role in the GEGPRI project, for instance, on the extent to which participants engaged with the findings. South Africa had more positive responses, where there were pre-existing relationships. In Kenya, one of the research team had a long history with the Ministry and brokered some introductions. Providing research participants with different opportunities to be involved was important, and the research project did so within advisory committees.
Danielle answered that trust needs to be based on both sides of the relationship. Knowledge brokers should be impartial and building one-to-one relationships is important, as well as embedding institutional trust. She gave the example that APHRC needs to know that they are doing their homework in order to provide technical assistance and that the Global Fund board can then have confidence in the soundness of the information.
Benjamin added that trust takes time, however, as a starting point we must imbibe the culture through stakeholder mapping. Relevant stakeholders should be engaged comprehensively on a continuous basis, horizontally and vertically. Benjamin advised to always give stakeholders timely feedback on research results, as if you do not get stakeholders involved, there is a risk that their trust will be lost.
Q) Danielle could you elaborate on your comment that knowledge brokering is not only just push and pull?
Danielle replied that dumping information on a target audience doesn’t work. Nor does a solely demand-driven strategy. You need the right information (supply) for the request (demand), at the right time.
Q) Danielle, how much of the tendency towards consensus is driven by evidence vs. rational response to politics within the Board to improve the strength of the constituents’ positions?
Danielle responded that it was more of a collective decision to use a consensual process. 47 different entities being represented on the board is very challenging. Consensus is very time consuming. Practically, this was decided by the leadership. That is, however, open to change if it does not work at the time. Africa have 10% of the board votes, if one member votes yes and one votes no there is no central position, it is in the best interest for the Africa constituencies to be aligned.
Q) Individual capacity to act within a social process is important, loss of individual relationships can be a vulnerability, how can we create more resilient networks beyond individual relationships to enable evidence to have an impact?
Amy agreed that her project was vulnerable to this, as within ministries people do come and go due to elections. The project team was concerned with understanding relationships within organisational spaces, but also the connections between organisations such as between NGOs and education departments. The project tried to develop these institutional relationships, bringing them into advisory committees. Leveraging indirect influence by working with a national NGO who worked with the education department. These horizontal relationships within and between organisations were really important.
Benjamin gave an example used in Nigeria of building mentorship programmes, so that even if an individual leaves, there are people who can carry on the work. This sustainability can only occur if the model is built within the project, both at the policy, research, and even the user level.
Read a summary of Danielle Doughman’s contribution to the Roundtable on the APHRC website in the blog ‘Part art, part science: knowledge brokerage in global decision making‘