Is limiting participation in order to influence policy irreconcilable with development?

Published on 25 January 2019

James Georgalakis

Director of Evidence and Impact

With the launch of IDS’ new Evidence into Policy and Practice Series I wanted to get the debate on evidence informed policy and practice (EIPP) off to a flying start. So we invited political scientist Paul Cairney to come and speak about his concerns around the neglect of policy theory in EIPP toolkits and approaches. True to form he challenged us to reject simplified policy processes, questioned the likelihood that evidence can influence entrenched views and values and compared giving top tips on improving the use of evidence in policy to suggesting new sports shoes might help you run as fast as Usain Bolt. Watch the seminar here.

Challenging evidence into policy processes

Speaking to a packed room at IDS, considered by some as the birthplace of participatory action research, he really ruffled some feathers when he suggested that most progress in informing policy with evidence is made by ‘limiting participation’ in this process to specialists working in specific knowledge-policy areas. Predictably IDS academics in the audience took the bait asking where this leaves ‘unruly politics’ and the political action taken by marginalised citizens on the streets when food and fuel prices rocket or their rights are curtailed. His response was to suggest that most change happens away from the sphere of ‘exciting politics.’

He also challenges dominant policy influencing advice, such as waiting for policy windows. Not only may they simply never happen he argued, he suggested that when issues are in the political limelight they are reduced to opposing positions that are irreconcilable, deeply ideological with little role for evidence. This does sound rather familiar as we watch Westminster implode under the Brexit process. If researchers do find themselves operating in these high stake environments the chances are they are simply using evidence to bolster the argument of one side or the other. The problem has already been defined and the evidence-based solution happens to fit – it is policy-based evidence.

Overly technical approaches

I share his concern with toolkits and think we should listen to his plea that we seek to understand policy theory and the reality of politics so we can engage with it better. His book: The Politics of Evidence Based Policy Making, is an essential read for any practitioner, campaigner and academic seeking to understand how to strengthen the links between evidence, policy and practice. His thesis deeply challenges overly technical approaches that rely on building the capacity of research producers to communicate better or policy actors to be more evidence literate. In these grim political times he reminds us that researchers are rather like the proponents of solutions that are waiting for the problem to come along. I’d agree that we do spend a lot of our time in what Kingdon described as the ‘policy stream’ engaging with others who share our commitment to a particular policy goal.

What about power?

However, as one participant asked – where is the power analysis in all of this? If access to these closed spaces is limited to the powerful and social norms prevail where does this leave minority communities?  Surely these insider and outsider strategies can be delivered simultaneously? This is what campaigning INGOs do so well after all. Just consider how Oxfam has combined a good understanding of policy theory (Paul co-authored this paper) along with the implications of John Gaventa’s power cube analysis. At IDS we frequently provide capacity building and technical support at a senior level whilst also co-producing with communities research based on their lived experiences of poverty and inequality. Just consider the work of the International Centre for Tax Development (ICTD) that works with both tax officials, senior policy makers and communities. Choosing between inclusivity and influence seems like a false dichotomy.  I look forward to reading Paul’s reply.

Read Paul’s reply here.

You can also join the debate by following the new Evidence into Policy event Series.

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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