«Policy Research And The Policy Process: Do The Twain Ever Meet? JAMES L. GARRETT YASSIR ISLAM This Gatekeeper Series is produced by the International ...»
The characteristics of farming groups, supposed determinants of power, had changed little in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but the Zimbabwean political landscape had been overturned. The settler regime had given way to a new black government. The favour accorded the small growers resulted from a traditional concern of the now-ruling party with the welfare of the rural poor, not because the poor were inherently ‘powerful’. They became powerful because the ruling party chose to grant them access to the policy process.
The policy environment
The particular cultural, political, and economic environment in which decision making takes place can define issues and determine the range of policy choices. Cultural conventions can define acceptable group or individual action and the limits of permissible policies. Macro political structures, such as the constitution or type of government, can expand or lessen policymakers’ room to manoeuvre. Economic conditions can force action and restrict choices. For instance, society may expect the state to maintain key macroeconomic variables, such as unemployment and inflation, within a commonly accepted range. External actors with no direct connection with the specific policy issue at hand, such as international financial institutions, can also affect this environment and thus the policy space (Figure 1).
Using information to influence the agenda
Before policymaking can begin, the issue must come to the attention of the policymakers and policymakers must decide to act on the issue. How does this happen? Moments of change in the cultural, political, or economic environment are important in providing ‘windows of opportunity’ for research to influence the policy agenda and policy choice (Kingdon, 1984). If information is readily available when policymakers need it, it can help frame the debate and affect the choices that policymakers make (See Box 2).
GATEKEEPER SERIES NO. SA74 Figure 1. The ‘Amoeba’ model of policymaking Box 2. IFPRI and creation of the IMF cereal import facility Reacting to the 1972-1974 world food crisis, researchers at the International Food Policy Research Institute ( IFPRI) began to analyse responses to world food insecurity, focusing on the costs and benefits of a cereal import facility to stabilise food supplies. However, not until the collapse of efforts to establish an international grain reserve in 1979 did the research become ‘useful’ to policymakers. Then, as policymakers faced mounting pressures to take at least some action, they latched on to the research, largely because the research on this policy option had already been done and was available (Adams, 1983).
Of course, this implies that the research was done earlier, before change occurred or policy decisions seemed so urgent. Policy researchers must look ahead to identify critical areas for research, and must, in some instances, acknowledge that their work will have an impact only in the longer run.
Research as enlightenment In a neat, linear world, a policymaker would identify the problem and the knowledge gap.
Research would be done, solutions presented, and policies chosen. Sometimes this happens, but most of the time policy research does not have such an immediate or direct impact on government decisions, even when the studies are explicitly commissioned to answer GATEKEEPER SERIES NO. SA74 specific government inquiries (Weiss, 1977; Weiss, 1991). Why should this be? Why doesn’t the policymaker ‘use’ the study and follow the report’s recommendations?
First, the ways in which information is demanded and produced militate against direct uptake and implementation of research findings and recommendations. Often, policymakers are not able to specify the exact information they need far in advance. The inability of the policymaker to predict future information needs weakens the link between research information and the policy decision. On the other hand, it is the policy analysts on the decisionmaker’s staff who are usually charged with interpreting research and providing specific choices to the policymaker for action, not the researchers themselves. Because the policy analysts have limited time available to gather information, they tend to develop an inventory of information which they can draw upon when needed (Feldman, 1989).
Research findings in this inventory will tend to be general, rather than context- or situationspecific. By its nature, such research will not have an immediate, direct, easily observable impact on policy choice.
In some situations, the characteristics of the research limit its impact. Findings may be inconclusive, limited in scope, out-of-date, or contradicted by other studies. Research reports may be written using technical jargon ill-suited to a broader audience, may not be available when needed, and may not take into account political and administrative feasibility. The actual policy decision may itself convey an ambiguous message, because it may to a large extent reflect compromises among the principal actors, making a direct connection between a research finding and policy decision difficult to find (Feldman, 1989;
Webber, 1983; Weiss, 1977).
Alternatively, policymakers may indeed be using the research, just not in the way the researcher may prefer and not to inform policy choice. For instance, they may be using it to further their own interests, delay decisions, mark and occupy turf, or to enhance organisational credibility (Alderman, 1995; Feldman and March, 1981; Jenkins-Smith and Weimer, 1985; Porter, 1995; Rein and White, 1977).
An ‘enlightenment’ model of research use
While the cases of immediate and direct influence of research findings on specific policy choices are not frequent, this is not to say that policy research–and social science more generally–has little influence on policy choice. The evidence suggests that policy studies do have significant influence, just not necessarily on discrete choices nor in the linear sequence that researchers and donors would like to see (Alderman, 1995; Weiss, 1982).
Research is only one of many competing sources of information, which, as suggested by the above description of the policy process, is itself only one of many factors that affect the final policy decision. Information on which policymakers base their decisions comes to them via a number of different pathways and a number of different sources. Policymakers get information through the media, from interactions with their staff or consultants and researchers, from briefs and reports, and conferences and workshops.
GATEKEEPER SERIES NO. SA74 Policymakers thus frequently use research less to dictate specific solutions than to help them think about issues and define the scope of problems and possible responses. Much of this use is not deliberate or direct and does not correspond to specific pieces of research.
Rather, bits of information have seeped into the mind, uncatalogued, without citation.
Information serves, cumulatively, over time, a diffuse ‘enlightenment’ function, providing an understanding and interpretation of the data and the situation that is critical to the policy decision (Feldman, 1989; Weiss, 1977).
Ideas from policy research can bring new insight into the policy process, altering the way people conceptualise issues and frame problems. Research can change people’s perceptions about what elements in a situation are most important, which can be changed and which cannot. As ideas from research become absorbed into conventional wisdom, they shape people’s assumptions about how things work, about what needs to be done, and what solutions are likely to achieve desired ends. The details and nuances of the research findings disappear and become transmuted into a simple ‘story’. ‘Rules of thumb’, the generalised findings rather than the results of specifically commissioned research, guide their policy decisions (Weiss, 1991).
Characteristics of useful research Weiss (1980) suggests that the characteristics of research that policymakers find useful
cluster around four factors:
1. Research quality
2. Conformity to expectations
3. Action orientation
4. Challenge to the status quo.
The first two provide a basis for trust in the research. How well does the research adhere to the accepted canons of research? Are the findings congruent with previous experience and prior knowledge?
Policymakers also found research that suggests a particular course of action useful, as was research that challenged existing assumptions or institutional arrangements, even if it called for major changes in philosophy, organisation, or services, because it raised new issues or ways of looking at problems. These two aspects of useful research are not mutually exclusive. Findings that challenge existing assumptions may still not be out of line with the decisionmaker’s own beliefs. The fact that such information was useful even when it recommended action that did not seem politically feasible somewhat goes against conventional wisdom, but it confirms that decisionmakers pursue their own agendas and do not merely react to interest group pressure. Armed with knowledge, decisionmakers can alter the policy space or hold onto findings and wait to use them in a moment of change.
Other analysts have found that organisations are more receptive to information if it is produced internally. A legitimate inside sponsor can improve the likelihood that the information will be accepted and acted upon (Porter, 1995).
GATEKEEPER SERIES NO. SA74 The need for effective communication Research is most likely to have impact by enlightening a policymaker and putting workable policy options in his or her hands. Research information that has been packaged for distribution to and for use by policymakers can be conceptualised as a research product.
Identifying the message of the product and its audience are important first steps in developing a communications strategy and enhancing the impact of policy research.
Content and packaging are two key dimensions of the research product. The content of the product is the message the researcher has identified as important and wishes to transmit to the policymaker. We can evaluate content using the four characteristics that enhance the usefulness of research information described above. These attributes will influence whether policymakers will use a particular piece of research.
Research attributes alone do not determine whether a piece of research is actually used; the packaging of the research output also needs to be examined. Format and style are two key aspects of packaging. Format refers to the form or layout of the research product. Is the product a hefty report, a policy brief, or a video? Style is the way in which the material is presented. Clarity of exposition, use of technical jargon, and comprehension level are all aspects of style. Format and style must be geared to satisfy the intended, and clearly identified, audience. The packaging will determine how ‘user-friendly’ the product is perceived to be, and hence the likelihood that it will attract the attention of the audience.
Channels of communication
How the product is packaged will determine the channel through which it is best communicated. Examples of channels are newspapers, radio, the internet, a lecture, or a training course. The choice of channels will also depend on the size and nature of the intended audience, as well as the message to be communicated. Two important facets of communication are time and timeliness. How much time does the user have to absorb the information provided? Does the user have time to read a report, glance at a policy brief, watch a video, or attend a one-day workshop? Timeliness1 refers to whether the information was provided in a timely manner at the ‘right place’ and ‘right time’.
A communications strategy
Because many other sources of information are competing for the attention of decision makers, an effective communications strategy will attract their attention, deliver the product to them, and bring about the desired policy change. The key elements of a communications strategy are shown in Figure 2. Essentially, the message is embodied in a product emanating from the source (the research programme), and is communicated through various channels to the audience (primarily policymakers), which then takes action.
1. This is different from the timeliness of the research itself, which refers to the relevance of the research topic and findings to the problem at hand or the interest of the policymaker.
GATEKEEPER SERIES NO. SA74 Figure 2. Key components of a communications strategy Because the policymaking process involves many different actors who are all potential audiences, there is seldom one single audience for a pro-duct. The key target audiences need to be identified, and the product adapted as necessary. In some cases, a particular audience may act as an intermediary between the com-municator (the research organisation) and the end-user (the policymaker). These intermediaries, inclu-ding the general public, news media, interest groups, and government com-mittees, can be thought of as ‘retailers’ of information. Retailers identify and extract information that they want to convey to the end-user from a wide variety of sources. Sources of basic information such as research organisations can be thought of as ‘wholesalers’ of information. But these wholesalers often have no idea of how retailers repackage their products and sell them to the policymakers (Zilberman, 1997).
The content and packaging of a product must be adapted to each audience’s level of understanding and interest in the message. The behavioural changes desired by the communicator must be identified (additional ideas added to the public debate? actual policy change?). These specific behavioural changes can provide strategic and definable goals useful in focusing and evaluating the communications strategy.