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

Community member post by Leandro Echt and Vanesa Weyrauch

leandro-echt
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
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.

Material resources for transdisciplinary research

Community member post by Chris Riedy

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Chris Riedy (biography)

What materials are needed to support the conduct of transdisciplinary research?

Transdisciplinary research is a bundle of interwoven social practices taking different forms in different contexts. As highlighted in one prominent version of social practice theory (Shove et al., 2012: 14), social practice has three elements:

  • Materials – ‘including things, technologies, tangible physical entities, and the stuff of which objects are made’
  • Competences – ‘which encompasses skill, know-how and technique’
  • Meanings – ‘in which we include symbolic meanings, ideas and aspirations’.

Continue reading

Why are interdisciplinary research proposals less likely to be funded? (Reblog)

Community member post by Gabriele Bammer

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Gabriele Bammer (biography)

The first empirical support for a long-standing complaint by interdisciplinary researchers was recently published in the leading journal Nature. The Australian National University’s Lindell Bromham, Russell Dinnage and Xia Hua showed that interdisciplinary research is less likely to be funded than discipline-based research proposals (Nature, 534, 684–687 (30 June), DOI: 10.1038/nature18315).

They cleverly applied a technique from evolutionary biology that examines relatedness between biological lineages, using a hierarchical classification of research fields rather than an evolutionary tree. The relative representation of different field of research codes and their degree of difference were used as a proxy measure for interdisciplinarity.

The results, based on 5 years of data from the Australian Research Council’s Discovery program, are robust and are unaffected when number of collaborators, primary research field and type of institution are taken into account.

What does it mean? Continue reading

Eight strategies for co-creation

Community member post by Arnim Wiek

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Arnim Wiek (biography)

Co-creation aims at genuine and meaningful interaction among researchers, service providers, policy makers, consumers, and other key stakeholders. It is also known as co-production, co-design and co-construction. Co-creation is often a buzzword with fuzzy meanings of who collaborates with whom, when and how (processes) and to what end (outcomes) in addressing sustainability and other complex problems. Yet there is emerging evidence on best practices of co-creation. Although this evidence is mostly based on individual case studies or comparisons of small sets of cases, the following eight strategies provide valuable guidance for researchers and practitioners. Continue reading

Designing applied research for impact

Community member post by Andrew Campbell

andrew-campbell
Andrew Campbell (biography)

How can we get the three critical groups in transdisciplinary research—researchers, end users of research, and funders of research—to work together in designing applied research for impact? As Roux and colleagues (2010) pointed out:

A key characteristic of transdisciplinary research is that the domains of science, management, planning, policy and practice are interactively involved in issue framing, knowledge production and knowledge application.”

A critical challenge is that each of the three groups is likely to have different perspectives on the goals of a given research project or program and how to achieve them, and therefore likely to define success differently. Continue reading

Working together for better outcomes: Lessons for funders, researchers, and researcher partners

Community member post by Kit Macleod

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Kit Macleod (biography)

As a community of interdisciplinary practice we need to share our collective knowledge on how funders, researchers and wider research partners can work together for better outcomes to address pressing societal challenges.

Funding interdisciplinary research: improving practices and processes

Seven key challenges to funding interdisciplinary research include:

  1. No agreed criteria defining ‘excellence’ in interdisciplinary research.
  2. Poor agreement of the benefits and costs of interdisciplinary ways of working.
  3. No agreement on how much or what kind of additional funding support is required for interdisciplinary research.
  4. No consensus on terminology.
  5. No clearly delineated college of peers from which to select appropriate reviewers.
  6. Limited appropriate interdisciplinary peer review processes.
  7. Restrictions within funding organisations concerning budget allocations and support for interdisciplinary research.

A guidance note for research funders then suggests ways forward from the pre-call stage to evaluation of completed research projects. Continue reading