By Ruth Stewart, Director of the Africa Centre for Evidence
‘A public servant at heart’. That is how I was introduced my government colleague when I helped to deliver a workshop for public servants from across South African government. In many ways, she was generously saying about me ‘she is one of us’. She also explained my research background and why she had asked me to come and facilitate some of the workshop.
I am privileged to work with a number of people who believe in the importance of researchers and decision-makers getting to know one another, and getting to know what is involved in one another’s work. I am ashamed to say that the importance of this is a relatively recent revelation to me, and something I most definitely need to work on more. Until recently for me, and I believe for many others, evidence-informed decision-making (EIDM) looked a lot like this.
Getting decision-makers to better understand research, its value and in particular its findings and recommendations has long been the aim of supporters of evidence-informed decision-making (mostly those who are based outside of decision-making structures). The extraordinary thing is that as a university-based researcher, I have only once been told that I should also get to understand policy, planning and implementation, their histories, processes and values. Researchers are frequently encouraged to write succinctly, in plain English, and in appropriate formats to enable easy access by potential users of research. But I increasingly believe that researchers also need to better understand decision-making processes and priorities. This blog argues for the importance not only of decision-makers engaging with research and researchers, but also of researchers getting to know more about the people and processes they hope to shape. Maybe then the world might look a bit more like this.
What am I proposing?
So what do I mean by understanding decision-makers and decision-making, their processes, priorities and potential? This is what I have learnt over the last few years.
When I ask decision-makers in government to explain their policy and planning cycles and to help me understand where research evidence might be useful, they are more responsive and engaged than when I try to tell them about their own decision-making processes and when they should incorporate research (and yes, much to my embarrassment, I have done the latter). When I make an effort to understand policy-options before I conduct my research project, decision-makers are much more likely to read it. I’ve learnt that I need to ask about timing of key decisions to guide the timing of my own research. I was naively shocked when some public servants told me that their greatest priority was the reputation of their organisation, the re-election (or on-going appointment) of their preferred leadership, and their own employment and advancement in their careers. When I have asked colleagues in front line service delivery what their current policy and practice is, and to help me understand the history is of these services in the country, I have understood better why some research may not ever be incorporated into their decisions for the future. When I have heard citizen’s perspectives, I have learnt a whole lot more about how individuals make decisions and why all sorts of things in life might seem contrary to what the research evidence says.
These and many other similar experiences have shown me that those who produce research need to do the following. A) Get to know the people they are hoping will read and take account of their research, as well as learning about their work. This might include decision-makers in a range of organisations and levels. B) In learning more about decision-makers’ work, we need to learn more about the processes of decision-making, priorities (which can include various levels – personal, organisational, national) and the potential of those decisions to make a difference.
How do I think we might go about this?
I’m suggesting three ways in which research producers might gain better understanding of decision-makers and decision-making. They all also apply to decision-makers wanting to learn more about research; although I think the bigger gap that needs addressing is actually in the research community. I was reminded recently by a colleague that I shouldn’t think of this as ‘learning about the outside world’, but rather acknowledge that there is one world, and one evidence ecosystem, and we need to get to know it, particularly those elements with which we are not yet familiar.
- There is a lot we can learn from our desks. We can read up on policy areas, access recent documentation such as consultation papers, current policy documents and practice papers, and explore the history, debates and challenges, key personnel and personalities.
- We can do courses. This can include taking courses on social and public policy, public administration, governance, and much more. My advice is to be conscious about what you are learning and from whom. Courses run within universities will almost certainly give you an academic perspective, which is not wrong but has its limitations. Consider who is delivering the course and what their knowledge and experience is of decision-making structures. Have they worked in government or civil society? What do they know about delivery of services? If what they know is only from the literature, then it might be better to focus on your own reading.
- We can get out there and listen and talk to people who know more than us, preferably those with first hand experience of decision-making processes, priorities and potential. For most people who do not work within decision-making structures this can be difficult. How do you know who to talk to and how do you access them? It’s not easy. You can cold call or email people (perhaps a director of research in a government department), but they may not respond. You can attend meetings and conferences where policy and practice issues are discussed by public servants. My advice is that before you approach any decision-maker to learn about their work, you should always do step 1 above first, and if there is a good course facilitated by someone with relevant experience, try and do step 2 as well. And then make it your goal to listen and learn. Your interaction with decision-makers is not an opportunity for you to push your agenda, but to understand more about their work.
I haven’t discussed here any of the initiatives for decision-makers to get to know research processes, priorities or potential. There is a small and growing number of these out there – you can read more about some of them here:
Vaka Yiko was working in Ghana, South Africa, Uganda and Zimbabwe until recently;
The Evidence for Policy Design programme, EPOD, is based out of Harvard University in the USA; and
The Knowledge Sector Initiative is working in Indonesia.
Whilst I admire organisations for funding this kind of work (including DFID’s BCURE programme from which my own team has benefitted), I can’t help wondering if what we really need now are funded initiatives for ‘building capacity for researchers in EIDM, with an emphasis on the decision-making’.
To summarise my argument, I have drawn some more bubbles for you below. In the next two blogs in this series, I will first be exploring what we might do to build shared understanding or processes, priorities and potential through capacity-sharing (not just ‘capacity-building’). And I will then be exploring how networks can help all of those involved in evidence ecosystems to build trust and respect and explaining why I believe these relationships are the essential foundation to EIDM.
 To those of you who know him, it will be no surprise that this was in a conversation with the excellent Michael Noble, a highly rated academic with experience of working in and with governments, and someone who commits himself to directly facilitating the use of research evidence in decision-making.
 When I refer to ‘research producers’ I include all those researchers who work within and outside of decision-making structures such as governments.