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.

A primer on policy entrepreneurs

Community member post by Jo Luetjens

Jo Luetjens (biography)

In the world of public policy, it is interesting to consider how and why particular policy ideas catch on. What is it that makes some ideas succeed and others fail? By examining the role of policy entrepreneurs we may come closer to an answer. In making policy change happen, what – and who – are policy entrepreneurs? Why are they important? What strategies do they use to effect change? And finally, what are the attributes of a successful policy entrepreneur?

The what

Policy entrepreneurs are energetic people who work with others in and around policymaking venues to promote significant policy change. The concept was introduced by John W. Kingdon in 1984, who said policy entrepreneurs “…could be in or out of government, in elected or appointed positions, in interest groups or research organisations. But their defining characteristic, much as in the case of a business entrepreneur, is their willingness to invest their resources – time, energy, reputation, and sometimes money – in the hope of a future return” (p. 122). Policy entrepreneurs distinguish themselves by being prepared to promote policy approaches that are new within specific contexts. They often promote policy innovations by telling new stories, creating new frames, or making arguments that break down traditional alignments of interests.

The why

The policymaking space, according to Kingdon, is made up by three more or less independent activities: the problem stream, the politics stream, and the policy stream. He argued that moments arise when perceptions of problems, political circumstances, and ideas for possible solutions all come into alignment. These moments are called ‘windows of opportunity’ or ‘policy windows’, and offer a real chance to enact policy change. Change is difficult, and this can frustrate people who want to make a positive difference in their area of work, so policy windows offer an opportunity for policy entrepreneurs to strike. They ‘lie in wait’, then take advantage of windows as they emerge. While Kingdon was looking directly at domestic policy change in the United States Congress, many scholars have followed his lead and have found policy entrepreneurs to be agents of policy change across a broad range of policy areas.

The how

The broader policymaking context will always be critical for determining the likelihood of policy entrepreneurs emerging, and the success they have in promoting policy change. However, there are specific strategies that policy entrepreneurs pursue that can increase their chances of influencing change. These include:

  1. Framing problems and redefining policy solutions. Policy entrepreneurs are conversationalists who create meaning through their discussion with others, bringing them along in the process. They do not simply impose their view and expect others to follow.
  2. Using and expanding networks. These actors tap into and understand how to use the skills and knowledge of others. They view networks as a vital resource they can draw on to support their cause.
  3. Creating a guiding advocacy coalition. Like entrepreneurs in business, policy entrepreneurs must be team players. This is where their real strength comes from. Team building can take several forms. The size and composition of these coalitions can be crucial for demonstrating the degree of support enjoyed by a proposal for policy change.
  4. Leading by example. Risk aversion among decision-makers presents a major challenge for actors seeking to promote significant policy change. Policy entrepreneurs often take actions intended to reduce risk – both real and perceived. A common strategy involves engaging with others to clearly demonstrate the feasibility of a policy proposal. This can do a lot to win credibility with others and build momentum for change.
  5. Building momentum and scaling up the change efforts. Policy entrepreneurs can tie together seemingly disparate change efforts to create a united platform that builds momentum for change on a larger scale. Leadership by example is vital to demonstrating credibility and making the pursuit of policy change believable.

The Who

While anyone can and may pursue these strategies in pursuit of policy change, there are particular personal attributes associated with highly effective policy entrepreneurs. These include:

  1. Ambition. Pushing a major policy agenda takes great commitment and energy. This attribute is vital for getting others to believe in what you are seeking to do and to join your efforts. Ambition for a particular cause supplies the ‘why’ that explains everything else that policy entrepreneurs do.
  2. Social acuity. The essential actions of policy entrepreneurs – problem framing, building teams, and leading by example – all call for high levels of social acuity. Windows of opportunity don’t come along with labels on them – they need to be perceived within complex social and political contexts. Through their social acuity, policy entrepreneurs discover how people are thinking about problems. They come to appreciate the concerns and motivations that drive others.
  3. Credibility. As policy entrepreneurship involves pursuing innovative goals by building coalitions of support, these actors must be credible. They can achieve credibility in a number of ways, for example, through expertise in a particular field, or their ability to gather coalitions of support
  4. Sociability. Although they choose particular policy ideas to support, policy entrepreneurs always consider how others will respond to what they have on offer. They empathise with others and understand their needs. This allows them to identify common interests between themselves and others. They make others feel appreciated.
  5. Tenacity. Policy entrepreneurs must be willing to keep working towards a bigger goal, even when that goal seems nowhere in sight. This is especially important because policymaking contexts are often highly complex and the chances of achieving success can seem slim.


How does this fit with your conception or experience of policy entrepreneurs? Are there any other attributes that you have found to be important? Policy entrepreneurs have typically been studied in domestic settings, do you think that these attributes and strategies would work in an inter- or trans-national arena? How do you think local conditions might serve or stymie attempts at policy entrepreneurship?

This blog post is a modified version of  ‘A primer on policy entrepreneurs’  published on 6 March 2017 on the ANZSOG [Australia and New Zealand School of Government] website: https://www.anzsog.edu.au/resource-library/news-media/a-primer-on-policy-entrepreneurs.

Kingdon, J. W. (2011). Agendas, alternatives, and public policies. (2nd ed.). Longman: Boston, United States of America (first edition 1984).

To find out more:
Huitema, D. and Meijerink, S. (2010). Realising water transitions: The role of policy entrepreneurs in water policy change. Ecology and Society, 15, 2: 26.

Mintrom, M. (1997). Policy entrepreneurs and the diffusion of innovation. American Journal of Political Science, 41, 3: 738-770.

Mintrom, M., and Vergari, S. (1996). Advocacy coalitions, policy entrepreneurs, and policy change. Policy Studies Journal, 24, 3: 420-434.

Mintrom, M. and Norman, P. (2009). Policy entrepreneurship and policy change. Policy Studies Journal, 37, 4: 649-667.

Mintrom, M., Salisbury, C. and Luetjens, J. (2014). Policy entrepreneurs and promotion of Australian state knowledge economies. Australian Journal of Political Science, 49, 3: 423-438.

Biography: Jo Luetjens is a PhD fellow in the Successful Public Governance program at Utrecht School of Governance, Utrecht University. Prior to her appointment, she was a research officer at the Australia and New Zealand School of Government. Her research focuses on efforts to improve public sector performance by exploring the gap between design and implementation.

The integrative role of landscape

Community member post by David Brunckhorst, Jamie Trammell and Ian Reeve

David Brunckhorst (biography)

Landscapes are the stage for the theatre of human-nature interactions. What does ‘landscape’ mean and what integrative function does it perform?

What is landscape?

Consider a painting of a landscape or look out a window. We imagine, interpret and construct an image of the ‘landscape’ that we see. It’s not surprising that landscapes (like the paintings of them) are valued through human perceptions, and evolve through closely interdependent human-nature relationships. Landscapes are co-constructed by society and the biophysical environment. Landscape change is, therefore, a continuous reflection of the evolving coupled responses of environment and institutions. Landscapes are especially meaningful to those who live in them. Continue reading

Six lessons about change that affect research impact

Community member post by Gabriele Bammer

Gabriele Bammer (biography)

What do researchers need to know about change to help our research have greater impact? What kind of impact is it realistic to expect? Will understanding change improve the ways we assess research impact?

The six lessons described here illustrate some of the complexities inherent in understanding and trying to influence change.

#1. Research findings enter a dynamic environment, where everything is changing all the time

As researchers we often operate as if the world is static, just waiting for our findings in order to decide where to head next. Instead, for research to have impact, researchers must negotiate a constantly changing environment. Continue reading

The ‘methods section’ in research publications on complex problems – Purpose

Community member post by Gabriele Bammer

Gabriele Bammer (biography)

Do we need a protocol for documenting how research tackling complex social and environmental problems was undertaken?

Usually when I read descriptions of research addressing a problem such as poverty reduction or obesity prevention or mitigation of the environmental impact of a particular development, I find myself frustrated by the lack of information about what was actually done. Some processes may be dealt with in detail, but others are glossed over or ignored completely.

For example, often such research brings together insights from a range of disciplines, but details may be scant on why and how those disciplines were selected, whether and how they interacted and how their contributions to understanding the problem were combined. I am often left wondering about whose job it was to do the synthesis and how they did it: did they use specific methods and were these up to the task? And I am curious about how the researchers assessed their efforts at the end of the project: did they miss a key discipline? would a different perspective from one of the disciplines included have been more useful? did they know what to do with all the information generated? Continue reading

Five principles for achieving impact

Community member post by Mark Reed

Mark Reed (biography)

What key actions can help research have impact? Interviews with 32 researchers and stakeholders across 13 environmental management research projects lead to the five principles and key issues described below (Reed et al., 2014). Continue reading