The role of persistence in influencing policy with research

By David McDonald

Author - David McDonald
David McDonald (biography)

Seeking to influence policy with our research is difficult. Sometimes we feel that it is too hard, we are not achieving our goals fast enough, and we really should give up and find easier ways of operating. However, persistence, rather than giving up, seems to be a characteristic of those of us working in this domain!

What do we mean by persistence? A good dictionary definition is ‘continuing firmly, especially despite obstacles and protests’. Does that sound familiar: facing obstacles to doing high-quality implementation work, and protests from colleagues who do not share our perceptions of the value of working in this manner?

Learning about persistence from decades of experience at the ODI

The London-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI) has worked for decades in developing concepts, processes and tools to help researchers and others work more effectively at the research/policy interfaces, particularly regarding international development and humanitarian issues. In 2017 they summarised what they had learnt in a highly recommended brief document (Tilley et al., 2017) and the key findings are also summarised in their blog post on Ten things to know about how to influence policy with research.

One conclusion that comes through to me among the ‘10 things’ that they highlight is that some explicit strategies can be used to help us persist in our work, and not become too frustrated by the ‘obstacles and protests’ that we too often face. These are some of the strategies:

  • Being clear what to focus on: Try to become aware what are your core and generic areas of knowledge and skills—your critical success factors— rather than focus narrowly on your specialisms. This is because the policy environment that we often wish to influence is broad and fluid. We need a degree of flexibility as the contexts within which we operate change.
  • Attending to who and how: The people whom we wish to influence (such as decision-makers), and the ways they operate, change over time. This means that we must work hard to maintain existing contacts in the areas we wish to influence and, what is harder but really important, establish new contacts as people change in policy organisations. As they change their ways of communicating and styles of operating, so must we if our research is to remain relevant and influential to them.
  • Persist in building and maintaining relationships, engagement and trust with the people and organisations that we wish to influence: Trust develops through persistence in maintaining relationships based on the interaction of mutual respect and high-quality performance. Maintaining these relationships over time helps us to keep up-to-date our understanding of the structures and processes of decision-making in the organisations that we are seeking to influence. Remember that incremental change, not sudden step-changes, is the norm in public sector agencies.
  • Make use of advocacy coalitions and the policy brokers within them: It is frequently the case that, if we try to engage in policy influence activities on our own, we see limited success, and find it difficult to persist. Becoming engaged in advocacy coalitions, and making use of policy brokers within them, is a way of amplifying the impacts of our research.
  • Utilising windows of opportunity: Although, as noted above, incremental change is the norm in policy organisations, sometimes we can have significant influence, including over short time frames, through utilising windows of opportunity. Persisting in our engagement with the policy domains that we seek to influence, and understanding the behaviour of key policy entrepreneurs within and outside of them, can pay dividends.
  • Remember what ODI says: ‘stick at it!’ The ninth of the ten things that the ODI team suggests that we need to know about how to influence policy with research is that ‘It takes time, stick at it’. They argue, then, for perseverance, for persistence. They emphasise the importance of setting realistic milestones, engaging in reflective practice, and being sure to ‘capture the small successes as you go’.
  • Review continuously, and stop if you must: A key tool for successful long-term work in research implementation is continuously reviewing what we are doing, why, and the degree to which we are achieving our goals, including those of creating research influence. While this blog post applauds and encourages persistence, sometimes, through the review process, we need to face up to the fact that we are not achieving our goals and that we could be more effective directing our attention elsewhere. In other words, sometimes we need to step away and start again on something new.

Conclusion

Persistence means keeping at it over time. That means remaining engaged, being prepared to be flexible in our approach as the policy environment shifts, and windows of opportunity open. It means demonstrating that what we say is sound, based on our assessments of the evidence. In other words, we need to continually demonstrate that we are trustworthy, and that we are people of value, over the long haul, to the policy workers with whom we engage.

Do you have other examples, to share, where persistence is needed? Do you have examples where persistence paid off? What techniques do you use to help you maintain persistence in the face of obstacles and protests?

Reference:
Tilley, H., Shaxson, L., Rea, J., Ball, J. and Young, J. (2017). 10 things to know about how to influence policy with research. Overseas Development Institute: London, United Kingdom. (Online): https://www.odi.org/publications/10671-10-things-know-about-how-influence-policy-research

Biography: David McDonald is a Campus Visitor at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health in the Research School of Population Health at The Australian National University, in Canberra, Australia. He is also the Director of the consultancy Social Research & Evaluation Pty Ltd. He is an interdisciplinary social scientist with research interests at the intersection of criminal justice and population health. He uses research integration and implementation insights to assist with building evidence-informed public policy, particularly in the alcohol and other drugs field.

David McDonald is a member of blog partner PopulationHealthXchange, which is in the Research School of Population Health at The Australian National University.

8 thoughts on “The role of persistence in influencing policy with research

  1. Thanks David for a great blog and for encouraging a discussion. Persistence is an important issue. I agree with Sandra’s point about broadening relationships and think the notion of ‘thematic relationships’ is a great one. I have found that building and maintaining relationships does take a lot of investment, but is most effective when there is a hook, or a common aim or output to focus on. Finding that is often a key part of the relationship building process and in itself requires persistence!

    • That’s an interesting extension of the discussion, Helen. I think you are pointing to the usefulness of us being clear (in out own minds) about 1) which policy organisations and policy workers we seek to maintain engagement with and 2) around which specific policy issues and drawing on which specific bodies of research evidence. That is a slightly different (and perhaps more productive way of thinking) than a less focused orientation of simply maintaining engagement.

  2. Thank you! Glad you found the publication useful. I completely agree with all your comments, I’d highlight the importance of persistence in maintaining organisational relationships as people move on and change. It can be frustrating, but if you’re able to do it those new connections can open up new possibilities.

    • Many thanks for your and your colleagues brilliant work in this area, Louise, it is very much appreciated and, as you can see from this blog post, of great practical utility.

      It is interesting that both you and Sandra have highlighted the challenges, and importance, of maintaining fruitful relationships in fluid settings where policy people change roles rapidly.

  3. Excellent point in “Attending to who and how” – Government officials change constantly so it’s a question of building relationships not just with a person but a group and at different levels of the organisation and across organisations too. What i call ‘thematic relationships’.

    • Thank you Sandra. Considering the importance of using labels – using them for good or ill – could you expand on the label ‘thematic’ in this context? Does thematic relationship here refer to relationships with people in certain categories/roles, or perhaps something more subtle than that?

    • Thank you Dr Steve. I note your comment on ‘encouraging’. We sometimes do need external encouragement – including assistance/support from others (colleagues, for example) – when our level of persistance falls, when the ‘obstacles and protests’ seem to be too strong to cope with on our own.

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