Five steps to achieving impact with research

5 January 2015

Towards the very end of 2014 I was asked to present IDS' approach to effective research uptake at an event in London that brought together a wide range of development research funders, such as DFID and the ESRC and research organisations and knowledge brokers such as IDS, ODI, IIED and Hivos.

This was one of my first opportunities since being appointed as IDS’ new Director of Communications and Impact to set out our concept of ‘Engaged Excellence’ and how I believe it can help IDS and our partners achieve a step change in how we communicate and engage for impact. In this post I will share what I presented.

Engaged Excellence hinges on our belief that effective research uptake and knowledge mobilisation strategies rely on the production of rigorous, methodologically sound evidence of the highest quality that links to and involves those who are at the heart of the change we wish to see. This is about challenging the perception that there somehow needs to be a trade-off between research excellence and effective engagement. Instead we see these as mutually reinforcing values that together hold the key to achieving impact. Here are five steps (by no means easy but certainly necessary) that I believe will help research programmes become more relevant, more likely to influence real change, and to have a more lasting and scalable impact.

Step 1: Co-construct rigorous research that produces scalable solutions

We co-construct practical knowledge and create scalable solutions to poverty and inequality. We try to engage multiple perspectives in defining problems and questions and in generating evidence. We approach problems with practical solutions and have been successful at adapting methods to suit the partners with whom we are working. A good example of this is our work bringing local communities’ knowledge together with that of vets, doctors, environmental modellers and policymakers in practical, integrated approaches to address zoonotic disease in Africa including the Ebola crisis. Co-design of research carries through co-production to co-communication.

Step 2: Understand policy, power and knowledge contexts

For effective research uptake we need learning partnerships that enable us to better understand the environment in which development happens and map out desired changes, key stakeholders and policy processes. Influencing change, we have found, means not just producing knowledge and evidence and disseminating it, but engaging with the politics of knowledge. By understanding the power relations, political economy and interests which favour some perspectives over others, influencing strategies can be identified to empower and support alternatives – including the views of marginalised people. Sometimes we have to create new policy spaces or re-frame our research to make it relevant to live policy discourse.

An example of this approach is the Future Agricultures Consortium's creation of African regional hubs in Kenya, Ghana and South Africa which analysed the policy and knowledge context they were operating in. This enabled them to convene a platform for policy dialogue within and across countries and set up meetings between their researchers and partners and policy-makers to promote networking, research dissemination and new alliances for change.

Step 3: Promote mutual capacity building

Mutual capacity development is at the heart of our approach. We work with partners and communities at each stage of a programme – developing awareness, capabilities and networks. We not only strengthen skills, we also embed the behaviours, such as information literacy, and strengthen the relationships that will enable ongoing communication and impact. Throughout this work, we at IDS are also learning, and benefit enormously from the knowledge and insights of our partners and their stakeholders.

For example in the POSHAN nutrition programme in India, we work with district level policy and programme representatives to support their use of evidence, promote joint reflection and planning and increase the connections between them. We do this in partnership with State-level organisations, who are embedded in the local context and can support on-going change. In turn this partnership is informing our broader understanding of policy processes and decision-making, and the factors that influence them.

Step 4: Strengthen civil society movements and evidence based advocacy

Some learning partnerships and research uptake work enable us to mobilise locally and globally generated knowledge and work to influence the behaviour and practice of actors working in national and international contexts. We aim to contribute to, and in some cases help drive forward, policy engagement and advocacy that lead to positive action. The Hunger and Nutrition Commitment Index (HANCI) is a strong example of how IDS and its partners have worked to leverage awareness around levels of political commitment to reduce undernutrition amongst local and national government and international policy makers and encourage them to take action. This is a transparency tool that has been used to kick start policy and media debate and motivate governments and donors to evaluate their own efforts and to prioritise actions in the fight against hunger and undernutriton.

Step 5: Mobilise knowledge with technology

Our approach to effective research uptake and knowledge mobilisation is underpinned by digital innovation and our commitment to the delivery of free and open content. In breaking down technological barriers we aim to increase the availability of research evidence and present diverse perspectives on development issues. This is about more than just creating websites that pump out programme outputs. Projects such as provide good examples of how we can increase availability and accessibility of evidence-based information and enable effective co-construction of knowledge by representing the work and voices of partners directly, and enabling timely online dialogues. Furthermore, data visualisations, film and other multimedia outputs and social media from Facebook to Buzzfeed and Twitter are all tools that can really help to build bridges between academic discourse and live policy and media debate.

Find out more about changes at IDS that will help us pursue this vision of engaged excellence in a recent blog by our Director Melissa Leach.

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