There’s a common perception that top-down development approaches have failed. And public agency is playing a bigger role in policy discussions and in politics, as Stuti Khemani’s research highlights.+ This has put pressure on think tanks to involve the public more in their work.+ But there are still a lot of questions about how to do this.
In this article, I share my organisation’s experience in Nigeria, of deliberate efforts to facilitate meaningful engagement with the public in knowledge production for policy use.
In February 2019, we held Education Awareness Workshops across five Nigerian states. The workshops aimed to facilitate constructive discussions between political candidates and other stakeholders around education, in the lead up to elections.
Elections offer a unique opportunity for informed and interested community members to engage with political candidates on important policy issues, as politicians are keen to engage with the public (their voters).
The workshops were part of a research project+ evaluating the role of the implicit social contract between newly elected officials and education stakeholders in influencing school governance and learning outcomes.
First, we prepared a two-page brief on what publicly available data says about basic education in each state. The exercise highlighted pressing issues and was useful for preparing questions to engage stakeholders.
In planning the workshop, we spoke to a wide range of education stakeholders – such as teachers, parents, PTA representatives, school management committees, school administrators, government education officials, NGOs and community leaders. Interacting with these stakeholders revealed gaps in the data and provided context to the statistics.
We merged data gathered through preliminary engagements with the initial brief, to write a new brief that we presented at the workshops as a primer to discussions.
At the workshops, political candidates were exposed to community members’ demands and experiences, with a better-informed understanding of the issues they’d need to deal with if elected.
Our role as a think tank was to facilitate the sharing of experiences and ideas related to the policy issue of education with the policymakers. And to document the results of this engagement in a coherent manner for future policymaking decisions.
The human and financial resource needed for this type of engagement is a crucial consideration. This can make it difficult for some think tanks. But this doesn’t mean that it’s impossible. Think tanks have to find creative ways to fund public engagement activities. Including public engagement as a funded research activity can be helpful, and it is important to make the case for it with donors during fundraising.