It’s one of the most common pieces of advice given to academic researchers who hope to use their findings to influence international development policy: build relationships! Directly connecting with policymakers can help researchers get their promising results into policy debates. However, what is less often discussed is whether researchers themselves are in the right position to create these relationships. In this article, I argue that knowledge brokers – such as think tanks, advocacy groups, and research implementors – are often in a better position to build these connections. Researchers can increase their policy impact by working with knowledge brokers, as well as directly connecting to policymakers.
Who’s in this relationship, anyway?
Building successful relationships can take a lot of time. It’s not enough to simply send a policymaker a copy of a final research report and hope for the best. Best practice recommendations include sharing ongoing project monitoring data, co-creating new research projects, and even spending time embedded within government agencies. This might sound like a stretch for academic researchers, many of whom already have full-time university jobs.
The good news, however, is that researchers don’t have to navigate these relationships alone. Organisations such as local advocacy groups, think tanks, and research implementors can also play an important role in translating research into policy. These organisations are knowledge brokers, helping to create useful information and spread it to policymakers.
Academic researchers and knowledge brokers can bring complementary skills to bear on the process of evidence-informed policymaking. Studies have shown that policymakers are most likely to listen to information which comes from credible sources, and which is delivered at a point in the policymaking cycle when it’s most useful to them. As experts in their fields, the researchers lend credibility to their policy recommendations. Meanwhile, knowledge brokers have a long-term presence in low-income countries, and are explicitly committed to influencing policy. This means that they have more time to learn about how the policy process works in their country, and to meet with policymakers.
Bringing researchers and knowledge brokers together
What do effective partnerships between researchers and knowledge brokers look like in practice? I recently spoke with Lina Marliani, the executive director of J-PAL Southeast Asia, to learn more about the organisation’s role in promoting evidence-based policymaking. J-PAL was founded to manage research projects for economists in the US and Europe, and to conduct policy outreach about successful development interventions uncovered by their research. This has led to some notable policy successes, such as improvements in the distribution of welfare benefits in India, and new methods for improving children’s literacy and math skills across Africa.
While J-PAL Southeast Asia supports research throughout the region, much of their policy work is focused on Indonesia, where their office is located. Lina highlighted three main ways in which the organisation has been able to build strong relationships for policy outreach.
First, J-PAL serves as a matchmaker between researchers and policymakers. When a researcher launches a new project, J-PAL facilitates a series of meetings between the researcher, government officials, and other stakeholders in the researcher’s area of interest. This helps to set clear expectations about the scope and timeline of the research. Researchers are also asked to share regular updates on their projects, and to participate in dissemination workshops once they have their results.
Second, J-PAL bolsters its credibility as a knowledge broker by tapping into strong networks of local academics. They’re based at the University of Indonesia, which is the one of the country’s top universities. This helps them to identify local academic partners for foreign researchers, and also lets them build on Indonesia’s existing tradition of academics serving as policy advisors to the government.
Finally, J-PAL invests in building relationships with policymakers outside the scope of any single research project. This includes holding executive education sessions for government officials on program evaluation, and introducing themselves to newly appointed senior officials. Policymakers know J-PAL is there for the long term.
Tips for working with knowledge brokers
If you’re a scholar who’s keen to connect your research to policymakers, reach out to knowledge brokers in your geographic and thematic area of interest. Talk to them about whether your research is the right fit for their own policy influence goals; which methods they typically use for policy outreach; and when in the policymaking cycle you should time your outreach efforts. Building these relationships with knowledge brokers can make it more likely that your research will get in front of policymakers at a time when it can have real impact.