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Grupo FARO’s tough question: “are we producing research that informs and changes policies?”

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[Editor's note: This post has been written by Orazio Bellettini and Adriana Arellano, from Grupo FARO, who are participating of a  mentoring project with ASIES in Guatemala. Grupo FARO is undergoing an important organisational and research approach reform triggered by a change in its environment.The post has been written partly in response to Lawrence MacDonald's and Todd Moss' essay on CGD's approach to policy influence. What do you think? Do they have the right approach?]

In its lessons learned document: Building a Think-and-Do Tank: A Dozen Lessons from the First Dozen Years of the Center for Global Development, CGD presents key lessons useful to think tanks around the world.

Given the significant changes that have happened in the Ecuadorean political and economic context over the last few years, Grupo FARO is in the process of asking tough questions -one of CGD lessons- regarding how to influence policies in a contentious political environment.

One tough question that Grupo FARO asked itself last year relates to the type of research we produce and its potential to inform policies and change practices. Asking this question has been vital to rethink our organization and embark on efforts to change the focus of our research.

Our research focus to date

In its own history of public policy research, Grupo FARO has positioned itself as a strong producer of research focused on monitoring and vigilance. Most of FARO’s efforts have concentrated in analysing the compliance of public policies and we have developed a series of methodologies to compare what public policies plan to achieve and what they are really achieving.

But, as the Ecuadorian State has become stronger and has more capacity to design and implement public policies, especially at the national level, there is a need for research that moves from monitoring public policies to generating policy proposals and policy-applied knowledge that enriches the public debate.

A new research focus

In April 2013, Grupo FARO’s Board of Directors approved a transition to a new research focus that balances public policy monitoring with research dedicated to producing new public policies. This change has the following objectives:

  • Generating more rigorous research to respond to a stronger and more technical State;
  • Increasing the opportunities for policy incidence; and
  • Positioning Grupo FARO’s work and organizational identity

To implement this new focus the Board of Directors provided the following guidelines:

diagrama 1

In the following section we will briefly describe the different dimensions of our new research approach:

1. More collaborative work

Grupo FARO believes that is important to develop in-house capacities to conduct policy-applied research. However, the magnitude of the challenges faced by our societies require a more collaborative approach to generate knowledge as well as capacities to transform ideas in better policies and practices. In other words, we believe that in the future, think tanks will become think nets that create and connect networks made of knowledge producing organisations that engage in common projects.

Working within our domestic realm, Grupo FARO has partnered with Ecuadorian universities as well as other civil society organisations to implement join policy-oriented research projects that combine the capacities of partner organisations. At the regional level, Grupo FARO, in collaboration with other Latin American think tanks, established ILAIPP, a regional network of policy-applied research centres with the objective of conducting research to generate policy proposals that contribute with the development of Latin America.

2. More literature reviews and comparative analyses

‪Grupo FARO is increasingly conducting research at the regional level. We envision to do part of this work through ILAIPP as well as other regional networks Grupo FARO belongs to. In addition, and given the importance of informing our research at the national level with the analysis of experiences of other countries and regions, we plan to develop our capacities to conduct more comparative analyses. This will increase our perspective regarding particular issues and strengthen our capacity to think globally, in order to be more effective acting locally.

3. Balancing policy monitoring/vigilance with other types of research

If we classify public policy research according to its purpose we can distinguish: academic, planning, instrumentation, action research and policy monitoring/vigilance.  All of these types of research are useful to policy making but they answer different questions and generate different depths of knowledge:

  • Academic research asks: Are our theories, models, and concepts correct?
  • Planning research asks: Which are the factors that produce the desired outcome?
  • Instrumentation research asks: How can we organize different factors to achieve the desired outcome?
  • Action research asks: Can we, in practice, achieve the desired outcome?
  • Monitoring research asks: Is the policy implemented?

Producing a balanced variety of research will allow Grupo FARO to provide insights to the policy-making process at different moments.

4. Mode 2 of knowledge production and action research

Universities tend to produce knowledge in a hierarchical, disciplinary mode (mode 1 of knowledge production), as opposed to producing knowledge in a trans-disciplinary, open and horizontal approach (mode 2) (see  work by Gibbons). In the last few years, universities in Ecuador face the challenge of adapting to new regulations with strict requirements for research and publications in indexed journals. The Organic Law of Higher Education, in force since October 2010, establishes as a requirement for public and private universities a mandatory allocation of at least 6% of their budgets to the production of indexed publications, and postgraduate scholarships for teachers and researchers.

In this context, Grupo FARO does not seek to compete with universities, but rather to complement their role. We are focusing on mode 2, moving from an expert-centered to a people-centered way of policy-applied knowledge production. Incorporating this approach to the one that traditionally Grupo FARO has used will integrate users’ knowledge into the design, implementation and evaluation of public policies. We believe we can add value to public policy research by producing “green papers”, focusing on solving more specific problems.

5. Impact evaluations

In the last few years, the Ecuadorian State has reformed and implemented a great number of public policies. Sectors like education, health, social inclusion, extractive industries, employment, have seen major changes in policies and new State interventions. Impact evaluations are key to understand the effects of these new or changed policies in order to identify areas of improvement and make adjustments to correct these. During the next few years, Grupo FARO will expand its capacity to conduct rigorous and participatory policy evaluation processes to improve the quality of public deliberation as well as to improve the State’s capacity to design and implement more effective public policies.

6. A flexible research agenda

Grupo FARO is transitioning to a more flexible research agenda, one that allows us to maintain at our core the focus on organizational causes, policy priorities but also gives us the possibility to produce knowledge that responds to contextual needs and the demand of research.  An important reform that will allow us to have this flexibility is a change in our organizational structure. We are moving from a structure with fixed thematic areas to one in which programs are created according to opportunities and needs, that in a way reflects CGD’s Initiative’s model.

As shown in the next diagram, Grupo FARO’s research agenda incorporates three dimensions:

  1. Policy priorities thtat are organizational causes around issues that we believe are key for the development of Grupo FARO and Latin America. These priorities are defined in dialogue with other public and private organizations as well as a result of an internal dialogue;
  2. Issues that become important in the public debate at the national, regional and international level; by including this dimension  Grupo FARO increases its capacity to respond with flexibility to issues that become relevant and need rigorous analysis to improve the quality of the policy process; and
  3. Call for proposals to conduct research that is close both to donor’s and Grupo FARO’s priorities and interests.

diagrama2

The tough question we need to answer: how to achieve this change on our research focus?

As we move towards a new research focus we are concentrating on:

  1. Building internal capacities of our teams through training and mentoring;
  2. Generating practical tools to understand the internal change promoted (guides and research protocols); and
  3. Promoting partnership with organizations that have strengths in different capacities relevant to the change promoted

The capacity of reinventing oneself is one of the most important and difficult tasks that an individual or organization can face. We hope to respond to this though challenge with creativity and humility, thinking ahead, thinking across and thinking again, in every step we take in this journey.

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