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

Community member post 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, Politics & 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 http://www.politicsandideas.org/contextmatters/.

(Source: Politics and Ideas 2016 (PDF 1.9MB))

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. (2016). Knowledge into policy: Going beyond ‘Context matters’. Politics & Ideas and the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications. Report, May 2016. Online:
http://www.politicsandideas.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Going-beyond-context-matters-Framework_PI.compressed.pdf (PDF 1.9MB)

Weyrauch, V., Echt, L. and Suliman, S. (2016). 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:
http://www.politicsandideas.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Going-beyond-context-matters-Practical-paper_PI.compressed.pdf (PDF 1.7MB)

Politics & Ideas. (2016). Knowledge into context: A framework to understand context. Online: http://www.politicsandideas.org/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.

Learning to tackle wicked problems through games / Aprendiendo a hacer frente a problemas perversos a través de los juegos/ Apprendre à affronter les problèmes sournois à travers les jeux

Community member post by Claude Garcia, Anne Dray and Patrick Waeber

Claude Garcia (biography)

A Spanish version and a French version of this post are available

Can we help the next generation of policy makers, business leaders and citizens to become creative, critical and independent thinkers? Can we make them aware of the nature of the problems they will be confronted with? Can we strengthen their capacity to foster and lead stakeholder processes to address these problems?

Yes. Continue reading

Scoping: Lessons from environmental impact assessment

Community member post by Peter R. Mulvihill

Peter R. Mulvihill (biography)

What can we learn about the role and importance of scoping in the context of environmental impact assessment?

“Closed” versus “open” scoping

I am intrigued by the highly variable approaches to scoping practice in environmental impact assessment and the considerable range between “closed” approaches and more ambitious and open exercises. Closed approaches to scoping tend to narrow the range of questions, possibilities and alternatives that may be considered in environmental impact assessment, while limiting or precluding meaningful public input. Of course, the possibility of more open scoping is sometimes precluded beforehand by narrow terms of reference determined by regulators.

When scoping is not done well, it inevitably compromises subsequent steps in the process. Continue reading

Complexity and Agent-based Modelling

Community member post by Richard Taylor and John Forrester

Richard Taylor (biography)

Policy problems are complex and – while sometimes simple solutions can work – complexity tools and complexity thinking have a major part to play in planning effective policy responses. What is ‘complexity’ and what does ‘complexity science’ do? How can agent-based modelling help address the complexity of environment and development policy issues?


At the most obvious level, one can take complexity to mean all systems that are not simple, by which we mean that they can be influenced but not controlled. Complexity can be examined through complexity science and complex system models. Continue reading

Models as ‘interested amateurs’

Community member post by Pete Barbrook-Johnson

Pete Barbrook-Johnson (biography)

How can we improve the often poor interaction and lack of genuine discussions between policy makers, experts, and those affected by policy?

As a social scientist who makes and uses models, an idea from Daniel Dennett’s (2013) book ‘Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking’ struck a chord with me. Dennett introduces the idea of using lay audiences to aid and improve understanding between experts. Dennett suggests that including lay audiences (which he calls ‘curious nonexperts’) in discussions can entice experts to err on the side of over-explaining their thoughts and positions. When experts are talking only to other experts, Dennett suggests they under-explain, not wanting to insult others or look stupid by going over basic assumptions. This means they can fail to identify areas of disagreement, or to reach consensus, understanding, or conclusions that may be constructive.

For Dennett, the ‘curious nonexperts’ are undergraduate philosophy students, to be included in debates between professors. For me, the book sparked the idea that models could be ‘curious nonexperts’ in policy debates and processes. I prefer and use the term ‘interested amateurs’ over ‘curious nonexperts’, simply because the word ‘amateur’ seems slightly more insulting towards models! Continue reading

Enabling co-creation: From learning cycles to aligning values, rules and knowledge

Community member post by Lorrae van Kerkhoff

Lorrae van Kerkhoff (biography)

How do we improve? In the context of sustainable development, we continually confront the question of how we can develop meaningful and positive actions towards a ‘better’ world (social, ecological, economic outcomes) despite inherent uncertainties about what the future holds.

Co-creation is one concept among several that seek to reorientate us from simplistic, largely linear ideas of progress towards more nuanced, subtle ideas that highlight that there are many different aspects of ‘progress’, and these can be deeply contested and challenging to reconcile. Enabling co-creation, then – or operationalizing it – means finding practical ways to work together, to deal with our different experiences, aspirations and expectations as well as the uncertainties of the future.

Co-creation sits within a learning paradigm that suggests engagement, social and mutual learning, adaptation and flexibility are key to enabling action in the face of uncertainty. But how do we think about learning? Continue reading