Five years of Shaping Policy with Evidence

Published on 8 April 2024

Five years after the inception of our Shaping Policy with Evidence training course, Director of Evidence and Impact and Course Convenor James Georgalakis reflects on how the learning process has evolved.

Back in 2019 IDS launched this specialist short course which built on many years of support to development agencies and research institutions to better connect evidence with policy and practice. The course saw us extend our learning offer to mixed groups of international participants, which has had remarkable results.

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A different approach to learning

The course now has alumni of almost 200 practitioners and researchers from over 130 countries. We are joined by people working at the interface between evidence and action from INGOs, consultancies, funders, universities, think tanks and government agencies. It has spawned spin-off initiatives in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, and many of the course’s sessions have been incorporated into global research support programmes such as IDRC’s Clean Energy for Development.

However, there was a time when there was some doubt about our approach. Some seemed surprised when I first mentioned the idea of bringing people together from all over the world to share learning on getting research into use. This was during a period when context was king and the accepted wisdom was that you immerse yourself in particular policy environments, always tailoring work to sectors and geographies. As the political scientist Paul Cairney once put it: Providing generic top tips on maximising the use of evidence is rather like telling someone to buy good trainers so they can run faster.

Four people sit in a line at a high level meeting, with microphones in front of them and world flags in the background.
Image credit: Rawpixel.com

Learning better together

My vision was not of generic training and advice but of bringing together a global cohort of knowledge brokers, policy analysts, researchers and practitioners to share experiences in a safe space. The key innovation was to locate the course around a series of manufactured case studies to which groups of participants are assigned. This would level the playing field, placing everyone in an unfamiliar context in which they could no longer rely on assumptions and experiential knowledge of specific environments. It would expose every participant to different understandings of how change happens, what constitutes good evidence and whose knowledge counts.

Civil society advocates from Sri Lanka join agricultural researchers from East Africa, government bureaucrats from Latin America and research funders from Canada, to plan their strategy. This could be for addressing child labour in Ghana, tackling undernutrition in India or financing primary health care in low- and middle-income countries. The results are astounding. By testing and adapting frameworks provided by the IDS facilitation team for identifying stakeholders, problem and solution analysis and assessing evidence, the course participants invariably discover they have much to learn from one another.

All knowledge is equal

In these spaces all knowledge is equal. The policy specialist, community activist, academic and government official all share their knowledges and understandings. Whether early career or senior, from low- or high-income countries, an expert in a field or a generalist, participants rely on one another’s perspectives to develop their plan for mobilising evidence for change.

The course has evolved over the years as needed. What began face-to-face moved online during the pandemic and has stayed online. It is still just as participatory, but our expertise in delivering remote training allows us to offer a more affordable online option that requires less time away from work and attracts participants from more diverse backgrounds.

We have also taken on board feedback from past participants to include more practical sessions on areas like research communications for which there was a strong demand. And we have spread out the course over six weeks with just two sessions per week – again to fit around busy work schedules. We have also introduced group booking schemes that include a follow-up session with participants who want help cascading some of the learning within their own organisations.

Real world learning

The training team here at IDS, all seasoned knowledge brokers, evaluations specialists and policy researchers, provide some of the latest concepts in evidence informed policy and practice, and tools for understanding context and evidence needs. Beyond that it is our wonderful participants who do all the heavy lifting! We throw them together and let amazing things happen. Past participants tell us it was their first and only experience of this style of learning and many have reported back on how the skills and understanding they gained have been put into good use.

There is nothing wrong with getting some good shoes to help you run a little faster. However, what we all really need is to meet others facing similar challenges in different contexts and share our learning – then we can really pick up the pace.

Applications are open for the online IDS short course Shaping Policy with Evidence (June – July 2024)

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.

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