By Obasanjo Oyedele, Martin Atela and Ayo Ojebode
A fundamental principle for conducting research that is easily put to use by stakeholders is to involve them in the research process as early as possible. But how can the inertia and lack of interest that stakeholders often have at this stage be overcome?
We provide two lessons from our experience of involving stakeholders as early as the research launch.
The research project
The project, part of the Action for Empowerment and Accountability (A4EA) programme, was launched in July 2017. It investigates new forms of social and political action focusing on the Bring Back Our Girls (#BBOG) movement, which sprang up over the abduction of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls by terrorists in 2014. It is conducted by the Partnership for African Social and Governance Research, based in Kenya, in collaboration with Nigerian partners, and funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID).
The launch event
The launch of the research project took around three months to plan and involved several hours of Skype calls and many consultation visits, with lengthy travel. In the end, about 50 people attended, including civil society groups (especially the #BBOG leadership), religious leaders, the press, and politicians, as well as academics.
The launch was preceded by a two and a half day workshop where stakeholders and the research team discussed the research questions, identified the most appropriate methodology to tackle them (specifically in the context of Nigeria), reviewed ethical issues, and agreed on an appropriate research-to-policy plan.
Lesson 1: Your research is your business, not the policy actors’ priority
While it is true that researchers are trying to understand a problem and policy actors are trying to solve that problem, it is naïve to expect immediate enthusiasm for research from policy actors.
Our experience was that policy actors, including the media and civil society, do not readily share in the vision and excitement of the researchers. We had to offer tons of explaining, persuading and reminding in order to get policy actors, especially politicians, interested in the project. To expect policy actors to jump into a project just because it is topical and important is to set oneself up for disappointment.
Overcoming inertia from policy actors
How did we overcome the discouraging cold shoulder phase? We, in the words of Oliver Goldsmith, had to stoop to conquer. We migrated quickly from a “partnership” mode to an “at-your-service” mode.
First, we selected a launch location that was the most convenient for the key policy actors, namely Abuja, the capital of Nigeria.
Second, we worked with an influential Abuja-based civil society organisation – the Centre for Democracy and Development – as a co-convenor. This proved useful in overcoming the ‘outsider’ tag and in quickly mobilising stakeholders who understood the local context and could enrich discussions during the meeting.
Third, we used our personal and professional networks with the press.
Finally, we adopted an informal rather than a formal approach to nearly every aspect of the planning. While each research team has to decide what works for their context, our experience suggests that informal networks are indispensable in overcoming policy actor apathy.
Lesson 2: A cold shoulder doesn’t mean a dead end
After the initial cold shoulder, policy actors often warm up to the research idea and it’s at this point that you need to open up space for proactive engagement.
Mobilising policy actors for the Abuja launch (getting them to give their word to attend and to actually attend the launch) was a daunting task. However, in the end, we were almost overwhelmed by their enthusiasm.
During the launch, after we spent some time explaining the study focus and rationale, participants asked questions that opened up discussions alerting researchers to divergent, yet critical, views on the study topic. Nevertheless, in the end, we were able to not just excite them about the project, but to also get the commitment of many of them to support the project and consider using the outcomes.
Nothing illustrates the importance of perseverance better than this situation – where often, researchers experience inertia, almost akin to apathy, then overcome this and finally find themselves confronted by an enthusiastic audience.
Although it was unintentional, inviting some of the policy actors to the pre-launch workshop allowed us to use their experience to choose the methods for the study. This initial engagement also provided the stakeholders with time to think through the study and its objectives. The benefits of this became obvious at the launch event, as they continued discussions started at the workshop and brought in new perspectives.
Our experience affirms that policy-engaged research should involve policy actors right from the start. However, a context-sensitive combination of communication skills and a determination to overcome the hurdles of stakeholder apathy are needed to recruit policy actors who are committed to a research project.
What has your experience been? Do our lessons resonate with yours?
Biography: Obasanjo Joseph Oyedele PhD is a climate change communication specialist and lecturer at the Department of Communication and Language Arts, University of Ibadan, Nigeria. His research interests in media and communication straddle development, climate change, environment, agriculture, politics, health, and risk. He is a research assistant for the research on social and political action in Nigeria, the launch of which is reported in this blog post. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Biography: Martin Atela PhD is the Research and Policy Manager at Partnership for African and Social Governance Research (PASGR) in Nairobi, Kenya. His work focuses on evidence to policy, health systems strengthening and governance. He is the Programme Manager of the research on social and political action in Nigeria, the launch of which is reported in this blog post. Email: email@example.com
Biography: Ayo Ojebode PhD is Professor of Applied Communication in the Department of Communication and Language Arts, University of Ibadan, Nigeria. His research interests are community communication; community governance; new media; and political communication. He is the team leader of the research on social and political action in Nigeria, the launch of which is reported in this blog post. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org