Going beyond ‘context matters’: A lens to bridge knowledge and policy

By Leandro Echt and Vanesa Weyrauch

Leandro Echt (biography)

The role and importance of context in the interaction between research and policy is widely recognized. It features in general literature on the subject, in case studies on how research has successfully influenced policy (or not), and in practitioners´ reflections on the results of their work. But how does context specifically matter? Can we move beyond generic statements?

Vanesa Weyrauch (biography)

To find some answers to these complex questions, Purpose & Ideas and the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP) embarked on a joint knowledge systematization effort, combining a literature review with in-depth interviews with 48 experts and policymakers, mostly in developing countries.

What do we mean by context?

Our first challenge was to define what we concretely mean by context.For several reasons, we decided to focus on governmental institutions, specifically:

  1. the macro-contextual approach, which has dominated the existing (though limited) literature on context, focuses largely on factors that are usually beyond the sphere of control or influence of those trying to promote the use of knowledge in policy (such as the extent of political freedom, media freedom, etc). In contrast, our intention was to strategically identify potential areas of change for different types of interventions.
  2. we believe that governmental institutions constitute the most direct environment where practices to promote the use of knowledge in policy take place. They are the setting where most decisions about policies are discussed and, most importantly, where they are implemented.
  3. the role of institutions in enabling systemic change has also been widely recognized in development-related projects. Focusing at the institutional level has promising potential to contribute to change because of the significant role borne by institutions within any system.

A second decision was to embrace politics in the approach to the policy making process. Our study stressed the need to avoid approaching proposed changes as simply technocratic or resource challenges. On the contrary, the politics involved in any institution strengthening process must to be established as a matter of priority in any change agenda.

A comprehensive conceptual framework

The result of this effort is a comprehensive conceptual framework that, far from establishing linear recipes to tackle the use of evidence in policy making, uses a systemic approach and embraces the complexity of the policy making process.

Six main dimensions allow users to identify entry points to make strategic decisions in governmental institutions:

  1. macro-context: the overarching forces (structural and circumstantial) at the national level that establish the “bigger picture” in which policy is made.
  2. intra- and inter-relationships with state and non-state agents: although part of macro-context, these warrant special mention. They are the internal relationships between the public institution and other related government agencies and the interaction with relevant users and producers of knowledge who can affect or be affected by policy design and implementation.
  3. culture: the set of shared basic assumptions learned by a group.
  4. organizational capacity: the ability of an organization to use its resources (human and legal) to perform.
  5. management and processes: ongoing processes and policies, and how routine decisions are made.
  6. core resources: include budget, time, infrastructure and technology.

Furthermore, each dimension breaks down into several critical sub-dimensions, shown in the figure below. These dimensions and sub-dimensions can be interactively explored at https://prezi.com/view/tCZ7NLMyM2OL1tlQ2zGG/.

(Source: Weyrauch, Echt and Suliman 2016a)

The links between the six dimensions are various and can change. A macro-context that hinders the use of knowledge in public policy – such as restrictions on freedom of expression – will significantly limit the potential of internal changes that a new leadership might promote (for instance, attempting to create a culture that values research). The same applies to the type, interests and objectives of external stakeholders: for example, if most stakeholders value the role of knowledge, and produce and use it to inform their own decision making processes, it is more likely that a governmental agency will take this into account.

Leadership emerged as one of the key “sub-dimensions” that can catalyse effective improvements in culture, organizational capacity, processes and resources to strengthen evidence use. For instance, when supported by capable senior management, leadership can effectively create new working cultures and channel resources to create and strengthen processes that promote continuous knowledge use and production.

Culture is also significant. It can erode well-designed and well-intentioned management processes aimed at change. Staff incentives and motivations should be carefully considered. This means that any formal decision to promote better use of research in policy needs to be highly strategic in working with the invisible but powerful world of organizational culture.

Our framework aims to help users better assess the contexts in which they operate to detect where the potential for change is greatest, as well as where the most significant barriers are. The framework has a promising set of practical applications for diverse audiences – from policymakers to researchers, donors to practitioners. There are concrete uses for different types of actions: research, design of interventions, implementation of interventions, capacity building, and monitoring, evaluation and learning.

We are looking for partners to further develop these ideas. What’s your take on context? Do our ideas resonate with yours or are there areas we’ve missed or that are under-developed? Would this framework be helpful in your efforts to bring about research-based changes in policy organizations?

To find out more:
Weyrauch, V., Echt, L. and Suliman, S. (2016a). Knowledge into policy: Going beyond ‘Context matters’. Politics & Ideas and the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications. Report, May 2016. Online: https://www.inasp.info/sites/default/files/2018-04/Going%20beyond%20context%20matters%20%E2%80%93%20framework.pdf (PDF 2.2MB)

Weyrauch, V., Echt, L. and Suliman, S. (2016b). Starting from context: how to make strategic decisions to promote a better interaction between knowledge and policy. Politics & Ideas and the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications. Report, July 2016. (Online): https://www.inasp.info/sites/default/files/2018-04/Going%20beyond%20context%20matters%20%E2%80%93%20practical%20paper.pdf (PDF 1.7MB)

Politics & Ideas. (2016). Knowledge into context: A framework to understand context. Online: https://www.inasp.info/contextmatters

Biography: Leandro Echt is the General Coordinator of Politics & Ideas, a think net focused on the interaction between research and policy. He is also Coordinator of the On Think Tanks School and Editor for Latin America at On Think Tanks, an initiative to support think tanks around the world. He has extensive experience of engaging with think tanks, non-government organisations, and public agencies interested in linking evidence with public decisions, especially in developing countries, through a mix of capacity building, mentoring and consultancy activities (such as evaluation of programmes and organizational assessments), complemented by research initiatives.

Biography: Vanesa Weyrauch is the co-founder of Politics & Ideas, a think net focused on the interaction between research and policy, and Associate Researcher at the think tank Center for the Implementation of Public Policies promoting Equity and Growth (CIPPEC) in Argentina. She is the Director of the On Think Tanks School. She has worked in the policy and research field for the past 14 years. She has created several online courses and works as a mentor with several think tanks in developing countries, particularly in communications, policy influence, funding and monitoring and evaluation. She has also developed and implemented an online course to help policymakers promote the use of research in policy.

14 thoughts on “Going beyond ‘context matters’: A lens to bridge knowledge and policy”

  1. Thank you Leandro and Vanesa for your excellent discussion of the contextual influences on policy development and implementation. Also, I appreciate your interest in others’ analyses of context and your openness to collaborating with colleagues with mutual interests in contextual analysis. In case it’s of interest to you, my recent book (Social Ecology in the Digital Age – Solving Complex Problems in a Globalized World) includes a chapter (Chap. 3) that outlines: (1) core principles of contextual theorizing that can be used to identify the “effective context” of particular facets of people’s relationships with their environments; and (2) offers a set of “mapping strategies” for viewing the “target” phenomena under study in relation to different levels of “contextual scope” (a generic concept comprised of four contextual sub-dimensions: spatial/geographic, temporal/historical, sociocultural, and virtual). If you are interested in exploring possible links between these ideas and your contextual analysis of policy development, see Chapter 3 of the book described here: http://bit.ly/2uqjqlz. Best wishes, Dan

  2. I see the framework as a good set of questions to get a meaningful planning / policy-making process started. I have been working on ideas for a planning discourses support framework / platform (based on Rittel’s ‘Argumentative Model of Planning) aimed at decisions that are more transparently linked to the merit of arguments and other contributions to the discourse. Those contributions will always bring up context and other aspects that go ‘beyond’ initial general expectations of ‘what matters’ — so the ‘model’ for the situation and system of a project or issue must be developed and revised continually throughout the process — not only as an initial and then fixed framework.

    • I see that my comment is listed under the ‘name’ of ‘Abbeboulah’ from my WordPress blog ‘Abbeboulah.com. My real name is Thorbjoern Mann; some of my work on those issues can be found there and on my LI, FB and Academia pages.

    • Thanks for your comments, Thorbjoern. We agree with the idea of revisiting the framework implications from time to time, and not making this lens in something static. Indeed, an interesting use of the framework is to see how situations under the different dimensions change with the pass of time, and what other elements need to be considered to promote the use of evidence in policy design and implementation.

  3. I like the way this makes us think specifically about context: breaking it down into recognisable pieces. It is a fact, as you allude to above, that the word ‘context’ usually directs our thinking towards the general big picture influences that surround us, which at the very best may offer the fresh air of a few new insights and different ways of doing things (and at worst a fetid miasma of entrenched views and tired practices). Thinking about how context is constructed transforms it into something that is a little more tangible and solid, which makes it easier to grasp and manipulate. Thanks.

    • Thanks, Charles, this is exactly what we tried to do: turn it into a lens that allows to concretely operate and help public agencies. In fact, we are now making progress in a pilot of the framework in Perú: we are using it to assess how the Secretary for Public Administration (SGP) produces and uses knowledge for policy: we can say today that it allowed us to detect tangible and solid areas where there is specific room for improvement and at the same time safeguard a holistic approach. More on that here: [Moderator update – In October 2021, this link no longer available: politicsandideas[dot]org]

  4. Really interesting blog – thanks Vanesa and Leandro! I do a lot of my work at the science policy interface and reading your blog, the example that came most readily to mind was a case several years ago. At this time I was working within a gov department and a group of us combined efforts to change (formally and informally)the way that knowledge was used in policy-making processes, from science led to a science informed. We had seen a need, an opportunity and an appetite for change. We had both successes and failures over the ensuing few years, however I am not sure how enduring the change will be. Does your framework go into longevity at all?
    Thanks, Melissa

    • Hi Melissa, thanks for the feedback. You bring in a very relevant point which did not emerge throughout our readings and conversations: it would be great if we could document some stories about efforts with a longer timeframe like yours and analyse how longevity plays out. We will have this on our radar, thanks for the contribution.

      • Hi Melissa and Vanesa,

        Great to hear of other evidence-policy interface initiatives within government… our journey on approach can be found on the link:
        [LINK REMOVED as no longer functional – from the africaevidencenetwork.org … improving-the-evidence-policy-interface-can-mean-a-long-term-commitment]

        Was great also working briefly with Vanesa and Leandro- your framework is really helpful- something we hardly had in the early days to guide evidence initiatives within government…


        • Thanks, Mapula, for sharing with others your inspiring experience.
          The framework builds on what many champions like you and your team have done and hopes to be one more link of contribution to a path so many of us are co-creating. Hope we continue learning from each other!


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