Opinion

Understanding evidence use needs cross-discipline and sector learning

Published on 19 October 2018

Image of James Georgalakis
James Georgalakis

Director of Communications and Impact

At times the noble cause of evidence-informed policy and practice (EIPP) can almost feel like a competition, as different research disciplines, sectors and experts claim to have discovered that special blend of ingredients or ‘secret sauce’ that leads to evidence use. The truth is we all have a lot to learn from each other.

Evidence-informed policy – a multi-disciplinary field of research and practice

The debate around how evidence can or cannot or should inform policy rages on and it is exciting that this is maturing into a fully-fledged multi-disciplinary field of research. Evidence, policy and practice studies even has its own special collection for which calls are currently open. Rather than presenting this as research about research (yawn), there is some benefit in treating it as a core theme within policy studies, sociology and psychology.

A major barrier to this is our habit of assuming that our theories and practice are not really transferrable between sectors. Just because the process of engaging in policy and practice involves the contextualisation of research, it does not follow that there is no value in cross-sector learning. It is quite rare to get a combination of public health officials, education specialists or development practitioners in the same room and just as hard to attract a mixed audience of anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists and economists to all come and talk about evidence-informed policy and practice. The assumption seems to be we will just talk past each other.

Can we practice what we preach?

The UK international development sector to which I belong – including its researchers, campaigners and practitioners, tends to lay a particular claim to being innovators when it comes to engaging evidence with policy and practice. We have donors who are very tuned into this agenda including DFID and ESRC, intermediaries such as UKCDR, embedded knowledge brokerage functions in most large programmes and we have generated a massive quantity of tool kits, guidelines and events that promise to guide one towards both a more effective use of knowledge for development and crucially its evaluation. However, more technical approaches to evidence use have come under increasing critique from political scientists such as Paul Cairney. They very persuasively argue that political theory reveals policy processes to be messy and interactive and calls into question the efficacy of initiatives like the ubiquitous policy brief writing workshop, stakeholder mapping and evidence literacy training for policy makers. These arguments and the supporting theory do not discriminate between sectors – we are all implicated.

Indeed, much of the experience of practitioners in think tanks and research organisations seems to question the existence of an evidence-policy gap that can be easily bridged with better communication, timely policy engagement and training . Despite growing consensus around the limitations of linear concepts of research uptake or simple policy cycles, these ideas tenaciously refuse to disappear from our theories of change, donor requirements or ways of working. Perhaps this is because approaches that respond to social and interactive theories that situate evidence production and use somewhere within opaque policy making, implementation and learning activity are much harder to operationalise given how our institutions are organised and funded. Dominant rational approaches seek to simplify policy processes to render them legible.

We still rarely repeat the trick of turning research into action

There is no doubt that many NGOs and civil society organisations are highly cognisant of the political and messy nature of evidence to policy processes (an unfortunately linear sounding phrase). It is no surprise that John Kingdon’s influential work on multiple streams theory places interest groups and advocacy organisations ahead of academics in his league table of the key influencers of policy. Many campaigning organisations can provide plausible examples of influencing change with the help of evidence and they can locate their work in the wider literature. Take for example this engaging paper on Using evidence to inform policy: Oxfam’s experience. Indeed, scholars who talk and write about the politics of evidence, the importance of engaging non-academics and producing policy relevant research often encounter an eye rolling response from experienced policy advocates. However, no one in development or other sectors, advocate or researcher, can afford to get too cocky. After all, if we think we know so much about these processes why is it still so hard to repeat the trick of turning evidence into action?

Advocates, academics and policy advisers – and these groups overlap- all have important contributions to make to our understanding of how change happens. Whilst NGOs have some of the most compelling stories of evidence informed political change, scholars have a long standing interest in how knowledge is constructed and engaged with. Concepts of cognitive justice loom large for action researchers working with marginalised communities and are currently being explored with valuable work on equitable research partnerships. Meanwhile, many officials in bilaterals, UN agencies and governments have a far better grasp of the challenges around evidence informed policy than we sometimes give them credit for. Just check out these fascinating interviews with some key ‘evidence users’.

Why do we think EIPP is so important?

This brings us to the other dimension to this debate: Why different groups think evidence-informed policy and practice is so desirable and what they see as their own role in this process. For campaigning NGOs evidence is arguably a tool to pursue largely values driven objectives. For academics there is often a strong inclination towards seeing their evidence as the key source of knowledge that needs to percolate though science, politics and public consciousness. In the case of development researchers this may relate to a commitment to bring the often unheard voices of the marginalised to the attention of decision makers but for most it is driven by their self-identity as honest brokers with rigorous evidence to share. In the case of policy advisors there is the need to construct narratives that validate policy choices. These roles are all described by the likes of Weiss and Davies and Nutley writing on the interaction of evidence with policy. The first is entirely justified when the goals represent global public goods, the second is understandable given the value of rigorous research in pursuing social and economic progress and the third is arguably a legitimate function of democracy. However, they do frequently jar against each other and the tensions that exist between them may be undermining collective action to improve the engagement of evidence with policy (and practice).

Talking to strangers

In this field of research and practicewe are all using our own vocabularies and are driven by our own priorities. This is why the increasing recognition of EIPP as a field and the emergence of new multi-disciplinary networks for its enthusiasts is so important. At IDS we’re continuing to build on our EIPP strand of work and have recently launched a short course that seeks to address some of these issues by bringing together a very diverse group of national and international policy actors, activists, practitioners and researchers.

Whatever your sector, whether you identify as a researcher, practitioner or a bit of both, let’s keep this conversation going and talk to people beyond our usual networks. We may never discover the secret sauce for EIPP but we can seek to advance our collective theoretical and practical understanding. The processes might remain contested and opaque but the prize of better outcomes for citizens and communities is very real.

James Georgalakis is Director of Communications and Impact at the Institute of Development Studies and Director of the ESRC DFID Impact Initiative for International Development Research. Also a Doctoral candidate at the University of Bath focused on the role of epistemic communities, policy networks and individual relationships in mobilising knowledge for development.

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