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Research communications support: why do donors, think tanks and consultants keep making the same mistakes?

[Editor's note: Caroline Cassidy is the Research and Policy in Development (RAPID) Programme's Communication Officer. This post is a response to: Developing research communication capacity: lessons from recent experiences and can be read alongside Vanesa Weyrauch's own response -coming up this Wednesday]

Building capacity to develop research communications skills and competencies for policy influence is not a new thing. There are a multitude of players involved in the process who have been working in this area for years. And evaluating that capacity development is not really a new thing either. So why then should I be writing this blog if what I am about to say is nothing new? Because, despite clear recommendations for better support, time and time again, donors, think tanks and consultants keep coming up against the same challenges, leaving research communication to the end of the project, then getting caught up in a cycle of workshops and interventions that are unlikely to have the desired impact, and when researchers or teams are already looking to their next area of work.

I arrive at this type of capacity development from ODI’s Research and Policy in Development (RAPID) programme where I have been working with the team to build on ODI’s years of work helping to develop the capacity of researchers and organisations in a variety of contexts, to have impact in the policy realm. Enrique and Martine’s evaluation findings from a recent communications project that RAPID and INASP worked on for IDRC last year identify  some very interesting (though sadly not all new) issues that frequently surface when we do this type of work: contextual concerns – in a short space of time, can a consultant really get to the crux of the project without having a strong working knowledge of the context themself; support often comes at the end of a project so that therefore it feels like it is ‘tagged on’ as an extra dimension, rather than an integral one; and ensuring you have the right people in a team involved in the first place, who can benefit the most from the support.

One recommendation from Enrique and Martine that I don’t think we at ODI have seen before is assessing demand and talking directly to the grantees who need support before a contract is even signed, then deciding whether this capacity support should be provided and to whom. This is also related to another report lesson on researcher incentives and pressures beyond communications and the fact that many do not believe it is their role to engage at all – that it is someone else’s job. Therefore, assessing the demand and finding the right people within the organisation to work with as early as possible is absolutely critical, (and then re-evaluating this throughout the duration of the support, as circumstances alter). And if it looks as if it’s not going to have the necessary impact – consultants and think tanks should have the ability to just say no from the outset.

Yet, despite these and other well-established, clear and very sensible principles, there seem to be a few key confounding factors that often impede their implementation:

The first is funding; although there is a growing consensus of the importance of communicating research, funding for communication has undoubtedly suffered at the hands of the economic downturn and the growing ‘value for money’ agenda. It is not always seen as a major priority in the research cycle and often too closely, and even wrongly, associated with branding and marketing, rather than policy influence. Moreover, even in the communication arena donors often favour interventions that lead directly to visible outputs like, the workshop.

Secondly, as Enrique and Martine emphasise, there is often poor planning: donors and organisations realise quite late into a project and budget cycle that the teams need extra support in this area, but with not much time and little funding, a ‘quick’ workshop is often seen as an immediate ‘magic wand’.  As a blog by my colleague, Ajoy Datta highlights – workshops do give a good introduction to the topic and some initial support, but are unlikely to make a real impact once the participants have left the building.

I also think that there is still the misconception, at some levels, that researchers and teams shouldn’t be thinking about the communication of their work until later in the process or indeed towards the end. However, whoever leads on communications needs to engage with stakeholders as early as possible to ensure relationships are cemented and that ideally decision-makers have buy in.

And finally, well even if they could do all of the above, donors frequently do not have sufficiently flexible mechanisms and incentives to support a more appropriate response, as discussed in a recent ODI background note: Promoting evidence-based decision-making in development agencies.

So faced with all this doom and gloom, what can be done? While workshops can still be useful, in RAPID, we are now trying to incorporate them where possible, as part of a wider and longer involvement in a project, and one where ideally we are involved from the beginning. For example, we are currently working on a two year project with the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie) on communications support to their grantees, knowledge management development (at an organisational level) and another three year project on monitoring and evaluating grant policy influence. The latter is in consortium with three other regional organisations: CEPA (Sri Lanka), CIPPEC (Argentina) CommsConsult (Zimbabwe).  It is an exciting, though we recognise, rare opportunity to work at different organisational levels to do some thinking, develop tools, research and capacity work in a ‘quality learning laboratory’. Support will be provided by locally based teams working in context, prioritising face-to-face engagement (which does include workshops!), but also using online engagement where necessary. All of this will hopefully help to ensure better impact, longevity and buy in through stronger, more collaborative relationships between researchers and policy-makers, and from our side, better contextual knowledge.

And for other projects, where we are working with smaller organisations and donor budgets, we are trying to ensure that there is additional support around the workshops through mentoring, field trips, local partners and we will certainly take on board the recommendations put forward by Enrique and Martine.  And sharing evaluation findings in early discussions with donors can make a big difference. An organisation I am working with decided to implement more face-to-face support, because the donor read and assimilated the recommendations from another project evaluation report.

Communications capacity development is a constant learning process and there is no best-case, winning magic formula. But nor should there be – because good support is so dependent on the organisation, project, participants and the context, and just ‘shoehorning’ a ready-made approach or template is not going to work. This report contains some useful principles to guide new forms of support and to encourage donors, think tanks and consultants alike to not fall into the same traps of short-term support that frequently only deliver mediocre results. And above all, interventions are far more likely to become embedded into the life of a project (and hopefully beyond) if they are part of the project from the beginning and not left as an afterthought.

[Editor's note: Vanesa Weyrauch's response will come out on Wednesday but if you'd like to join the conversation with a post of your own, please send us an email or tweet. See the original post for inspiration: Developing research communication capacity: lessons from recent experiences]

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12 Comments Post a comment
  1. I think another issue not identified in the article is that often where communications is funded, it is an add on to a SINGLE research project, whereas in my experience working in research communications, much of the work I do is about cross-cutting issues, breaking silos, making links between different sets of research etc hence funding for communicating ONE research project is inadequate and totally unrelated to how I work as a communicator.

    Despite this, there are few funders who fund cross-cutting, silo-breaking research communications, which means multiple research organisations ‘fighting’ over a small communications pie.

    Again this is not a new issue :)

    July 2, 2012
    • Thanks Rebecca. You are right about this. This is why any project funding for communications should fit within the organisation’s communication strategy. The problem is that often this means that donors’ brands are not visible or that the communication outputs/channels preferred by the centre may not be those preferred by the donor/client who is likely to want all its grantees/subcontractors to do the same.

      Maybe you’d like to contribute with a post describing how you attempt to make links between different kinds of research as you describe above.

      Best

      July 2, 2012
  2. Really interesting post, Caroline. You have flagged up lots of key points which were raised within our consortium during the inception phase year. I often get asked by researchers what they should be “communicating” when they have no outputs till the end of the research programme. During our stakeholder consultations, one of the main points mentioned time and time again was the desire to see researchers using robust and duplicable methods. This is one of the many reasons why communications (or “research uptake”) needs to begin with engagement from the very outset, otherwise you’re (proverbial) often left with valuable outputs, 5 years down the line, but nobody listening.

    Maryam

    July 4, 2012
    • What should i communicate when i have no outputs? I get that all the time too. I tell them: supposedly you have done some related work in the past, there is an existing literature out there that you re reviewing, you are using or developing research methods for your current work, others are working on this and they may have some outputs to share. The main idea is to get people to stop thinking of ‘this project’ and think about a broader body of knowledge -that may or may not be only theirs. At any given time, with or without original research at hand, there are countless of things that can be communicated. And these can help raise awareness of the project, get feedback, identify followers, find new ideas and people, influence (yes, even influence) sooner, etc.

      July 4, 2012
  3. Thanks for your comments.
    Rebecca, you make a very valid point and the more holistic an approach the better! Alex Ademokun from INASP has also written recently, on the Evidence-based policy in development network (ebpdn), about the importance of having good internal communication systems otherwise many of these efforts can be lost.

    Maryam/Enrique like you say, I think that researchers often assume that communicating their work has to be quite formal, but often it’s the informal channels, chats or discussions that are so important (and may be happening anyway) – and those need to happen early on/ build credibility and relationships. And also assessing who is the messenger at an early stage – if you are not the appropriate person/team then who do you need to collaborate with – how can you best become a ‘policy entrepreneur’.

    Caroline

    July 4, 2012
  4. On the issue of nothing (yet) to share and communicate, you can see a few of our experiences and approaches at:

    http://infoilri.wordpress.com/2012/06/11/using-open-knowledge-and-innovation-to-support-program-learning-at-ilri/

    and

    http://infoilri.wordpress.com/2012/02/10/sustaining-agri-water-research-communication-efforts-over-time/

    Cheers

    Peter

    July 5, 2012
  5. Hi Peter
    Thanks for sharing the links – they are really useful and in fact I used them for a couple of slides for a workshop I was facilitating last week for 3ie (referenced of course!).
    Caroline

    July 27, 2012

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