Crafting policy relevant research: thinking strategically about research

9 August 2016
SERIES Doing policy relevant research

[Editor’s note: This series was produced by and originally published at Politics & Ideas to share what the facilitators and participants learned through the online course Doing policy relevant research, which is now part of the On Think Tanks School’s Evolving Think Tanks Series. For more information about the upcoming course and if interested in registering, visit here.]

The first round of the Doing policy relevant research course has finished successfully, and it has been inspiring. Just over a year ago, we had written about how research quality had been overseen in the discussions on think tanks performance. Now, we have a starting point to support these institutions to improve the relevance of their research, from the very onset.

Research is at the heart of what a think tank does. However, research capacities do not tend to be a central focus of the development of these organizations. After all, aren’t they composed of researchers who have gone through extensive training to become good researchers? Aren’t these researchers’ credentials enough?

Sign up to the online course on Doing policy relevant research

We believe that researchers can benefit from additional capacities and skills to complement their formal training, especially to improve policy relevance and impact. Indeed, if you have ever sat down in a research methods class in a masters or PhD program –and you probably have– it is very likely you have been introduced to the process of doing research for academia. There are quite a bit of explicit and implicit rules about doing research for a PhD thesis or for academic journals. This is at the core of the training in universities and, of course, these skills are very important for any type of research effort.

But are these rules and frameworks appropriate and useful when you are doing research for policymaking? Or should we take into consideration different guidelines from those for “academic” research? Is researching for policy the same as academic research; only that it is communicated differently?

Our course (and this series) is based on the premise that researchers and research institutions that undertake good research for policymaking have a set of unique skills that distinguish them from those that carryout purely academic work. These skills are not only communicational, but involve capacities to choose and design topics, plan research projects and gather data in specific ways. They have particular and deliberate ways of linking with the world of policymaking. Similarly, the organisations where these researchers work have created an environment that enables them to carry out this work successfully.

Of course there are no clear-cut recipes that will work for all. Just like any other research endeavour, researching for policy is as much an art as it is a science. This means that as researchers we need to develop both the right mind-set and the practical skills for our work. Think tank leaders also need to create an enabling environment for relevant research to flourish.

To share some of the most important lessons of the course, this series presents some of its most important aspects, as well as reflections from our participants and the facilitators. We hope that this will translate into a broader opportunity to develop and discuss the craft of doing policy relevant research.

The series on policy relevant research

The series begins with an article written some time ago by Enrique Mendizabal, reflecting on the difference between research and policy questions. It sets the scene for a serie of articles that document the logic behind the approach put forward by Andrea Ordoñez and Leandro Echt.

The next article in the series is authored by Leandro Echt. It puts forward a set of principles for policy relevant research drawn from existing literature and through practice, which will help researchers develop both the right mind-set and the practical skills for their work, and create an enabling environment for relevant research to flourish:

  1. Embedded in policy;
  2. Internally and externally validated;
  3. Responds to policy questions and objectives;
  4. Fit for purpose and timely;
  5. Crafted with an analytical and policy perspective;
  6. Open to change and innovation: as it interacts with policy spaces and policymakers; and
  7. Realistic about institutional capacity and funding opportunities.

In the next article, Andrea Ordoñez discusses why should one address individual and institutional research agendas when talking about policy relevance. From Politics & Ideas’ experience working at and with think tanks, she learned that this is usually a tacit issue that, though relevant, very rarely gets the reflection and discussion needed.

Leandro Echt then argues that research agendas should not be based solely on think tanks’ interests or objectives. Think tanks do not work isolated of their context. Just as they seek to influence the context in which they work, they are also influenced by it and other stakeholders that are part of it. Thus, the article addresses the importance of understanding the research choices we make given the context where we work.

Leandro Echt then focuses on the second principle for policy relevant research, which suggests that it should be internally and externally validated. Without connecting our initial ideas and interests with the opinions and needs of others, the research agenda might become only a wish list disconnected from reality, losing social and political relevance. The cycle of developing a research agenda benefits from four general steps:

  1. An internal process of brainstorming and discussions;
  2. The engagement with relevant stakeholders;
  3. The inclusion and arbitrage of the suggestions received; and
  4. Communicating the agenda (this final step will be addressed in Module 6).

In the next article, Leandro Echt presents a method that can be used to understand the specific policy problem that a project, program or initiative will tackle and plan research and policy influence activities accordingly. The method links three concepts: policy problem with policy influence with roles of research. Linking them will aid you in maintaining a realistic objective of policy influence while doing the research.

Learn more about the difference between policy questions and research questions.

How do you know your research is relevant?

In the next article, Andrea Ordoñez asks if there a tension between rigorous research and research being relevant, thus increasing the chance of having an impact? The author believes that there have to be ways by which a researcher can make better methodological choices to be both rigorous and coherent with the policy context. The article shares some ideas for navigating methodological choices that researchers can keep in mind for their current and future projects.

The final article of the series focuses on innovation, which has become a new buzz-word among many types of organisations, including think tanks. But before your organisation decides to jump in, Andrea Ordoñez shares some considerations on how and when to innovate.

As a follow-up, the series is toped up by Tanja Jakobi from CENTAR Public Policy Research Centre, in Serbia, a participant of the online course Doing Policy Relevant Research. She shares how the course helped her think tank and its staff reflect on institutional and personal research agendas and how that process allowed it to re-think the way they deal with policy relevant research.

Simonida Kacarska, Research Coordinator at the European Policy Institute, in Macedonia, provides a reflection on the challenges of doing policy research in the Balkans. The abscence of policy planning and the lack of research oriented funding make it increasingly difficult for think tankers to plan their research agendas. Moving beyond this situation requires a conscious effort on behalf of think tanks of educating both their constituencies and their supporters/donors of the value and need for quality policy research.