Twelve ways to decide what actions to take

17 December 2018
SERIES Supporting policymakers to use evidence 5 items

In this post we provide twelve suggestions on what you might do to support policymakers to improve their use of evidence.

Do you work within or beyond formal constraints identified by the ‘evidence context’ study?

You’ll need to decide if you ‘work with the grain’, potentially encouraging policymakers to use certain types of evidence instrumentally (such as quantitative economic evidence), but potentially reinforcing negative practices (like excluding the lived experiences of communities).  Or if you look to ‘work against the grain’ by for instance, advocating for a broad definition of evidence, encouraging evidence processes that are inclusive and participatory and working towards the co-creation of evidence and policy. This will have implications on who you work with and the time you’ll need to bring about reform.

Identify and work with specific groups of policymakers

DFID in their tender documents suggest the need to combine individual and organisational approaches to capacity development. What’s missing from this are the groups of policymakers who feature prominently in the life of a government institution. This was illustrated in our work with a South African government institution which was formally made up of a variety of policy teams each focussing on a different thematic issue and with their own dynamics often operating in silos. The ‘institution’ as a whole (especially one with many employees) tends to be an abstract concept.

Target specific problems and set realistic objectives

Good practice suggests that whatever is proposed ought to become self-sustaining and become part of everyday practice. This is likely to happen if objectives are both technically sound and politically feasible. This means that objectives need to: change the motivations and practices of policymakers to improve their evidence use practices; have effects going well beyond engagement with your counterpart(s); be implemented without additional support from your delivery team; and encourage influential actors (starting with your evidence-to-policy entrepreneur) to spend their ‘political capital’ to promote reform.

Developing objectives that meet these criteria is far from straightforward. Discussion, experience, educated guesswork, piecemeal evidence and some creativity will be key in assessing what might be realistic and possible. As a result, objectives may appear incremental, piecemeal and unambitious. As Leonie Sandercock said transformative […] action begins with a thousand tiny empowerments not with grand gestures. In Zimbabwe, objectives that emerged from group discussions appeared seemingly simple, including, drawing on evidence to construct better arguments targeting senior managers and improving relationships between central and local level policymakers as a means to improve quarterly and annual reporting.

Take an iterative approach

Projects often start with delivery teams spending a lot of time with counterpart institutions developing plans and strategies (once diagnostics have been complete). However, it’s likely that any plan will be pulled out of shape by unintended consequences and complex realities. I’m not saying you shouldn’t plan but you’ll need to drop the assumption that you can design the perfect project at the start.  The process of developing a plan can, however, provide a vehicle for structured interactions and discussions about what needs to happen across an institution to improve people’s evidence related practices. Keep any plans that emerge from such processes brief. The chances are that you’ll experience failure and setbacks. Enthusiasm amongst a particular policy team you agreed to work with, may wane, despite much initial enthusiasm, forcing you back to the ‘drawing board ‘. So you’ll have to learn as you go and take an iterative approach, adjusting objectives and your approach accordingly.

Create space amongst policymakers to discuss what they understand by ‘evidence’

You might find that policymakers say they know what evidence is but in practice may not. Or they may recognise the importance of using evidence but lack clarity in what it means to use evidence in their day to day practice. There’s a lot to be gained from creating time and space for policymakers to talk about what they understand and don’t understand about evidence and evidence informed policy so they can get better at doing it.

Identify and showcase ‘front runners’

There are likely to be policymakers within an institution who can explain to you what evidence it is, why it is useful, what the problems of taking it up are and how they are drawing on evidence in their day-to-day work. Find them and understand what they are doing that others are not, and why. Perhaps by ‘showcasing’ their work, their colleagues might be inspired to take similar courses of action. Those motivated to adopt new practices might consult with those who are already ‘ahead of the curve’ and get a better understanding of what new practices would entail. They might also understand how the current rules can be used or bent to accommodate novel approaches. It’s conceivable that small changes in someone’s practice in one part of the institution could ultimately result in large changes across the rest of the institution (through the butterfly effect).

Frame evidence use as a means to improve outcomes

Some policymakers see evidence related work as a burden on them. You may subsequently want to frame using evidence as a means to addressing issues and problems identified by the evidence context study and ultimately improving policy outcomes (such as improved incomes, reduced poverty, increased employment, etc). Or you may want to show how the use of evidence can help improve their practical judgement, enhance the quality of policymaking as well as reduce public expenditure – draw on the concepts of ‘efficiency’ and ‘effectiveness’ if you have to.

Draw on intrinsic sources of motivation amongst policymakers

To promote long term reform, you might be tempted to influence a government institution to establish incentives that reward the use of evidence (or punish the non-use of evidence), which in turn might be imposed from the top-down by senior managers. However, policymakers are likely to find ways to ‘game the system’ to capture any benefits without actually changing substantively (akin to isomorphic mimicry). And being loyal to top managers is just one factor motivating staff behaviour in a government institution. People tend to perform (and subsequently change) if they are motivated from within rather than though, for instance, having carrots and sticks foisted on them by senior management. Over the long term, intrinsic motivation leads to more creative outcomes, in part because people who are intrinsically motivated are more persistent. Drawing on factors that motivate policymakers to use evidence from the ‘evidence context’ study will be crucial.

Promote learning about using evidence through social processes

Reasons for the poor use of evidence are not always about the lack of knowledge and skills. Teaching and on-the-job coaching will only take you so far. People tend to learn better in discussion with others. This enables people to jointly reflect on their experiences, receive feedback and have different perspectives brought to bear. Other people, then are indispensable. Without them experiences are arguably incomplete. In Zimbabwe, group reflection was  encouraged through group discussion, an approach which combined storytelling with action learning as well as live-scenario planning. You might also want to establish a community of practice – that is loose associations of policymakers or groups of policymakers in the institution, who take matters of evidence seriously and work together to improve their evidence related practices.

Take the time and energy to broker relations between different groups

Sometimes the problem of poor evidence use is a relational one. Different groups within an institution (or between different institutions) who need to work together may, for various reasons not be doing so. For instance, in South Africa, we found that those who financed the production of evidence, those who undertook research, those who reported on performance and those who developed policy guidelines had poor connections with one another. Your delivery team and government counterpart could bring such groups together and facilitate a conversation. This won’t be easy. Participants may be critical of each other which in turn will provoke a certain degree of defensiveness in some. However over time they’ll develop the capacity to discuss constructively and find ways to for instance, ensure that those who develop policy can get their hands on evaluation reports when needed.

Be creative in how you support policymakers with their evidence related practices

Policymakers up and down the hierarchy perform a wide range of tasks, including regular planning, budgeting and reporting, developing and revising legislation and regulation, planning and delivering projects and programmes, putting together PowerPoint slides for meetings and workshops, writing speeches and briefings for senior officials, persuading senior officials to pay attention to their policy work, organising events and much more. Short-term priorities then tend to drive the day-to-day search for evidence. So, your work won’t always be about building ‘systems and processes’ to procure and interpret research.

You’ll have to be creative in supporting policymakers to make their tasks evidence informed. This might mean, for instance, supporting policymakers to build a solid argument to persuade senior officials to pay attention to, and follow up on, their policy work. Given the focus on accountability and regular reporting (in places like South Africa), you may need to help policymakers to collect evidence on activities and outcomes at short notice. In addition, you’ll find it hard to convene policymakers for any group work you have planned. But the likelihood is that they will have to attend large meetings for official purpose: propose that participants arrive early or remain after the event to engage with you and your counterparts.

Support policymakers with their short-term needs in order to build their trust in you

As we’ve said earlier, trust within the delivery team and between the delivery team and government counterparts is a crucial ingredient. It can facilitate honest and frank exchange of ideas vital for getting the best ideas, approaches and/or solutions. But what exactly is trust? Trust is the expectation by one person or group of ethically justifiable behaviour—that is, morally correct decisions and actions—on the part of the other person or group in a joint endeavour. This can enable team members to have the courage to be vulnerable before others.

But how do you build it? You’ll need to perform competently. And you’ll have to show that your actions, words and decisions are not self-serving. This might mean going beyond your ‘job description’ by helping counterparts in the government with developing PowerPoint slides for an important event, contributing to a speech, helping to write a quarterly report, providing advice about indicators for a planning document. It might also mean refraining from publishing sensitive material, even if doing so might boost your career prospects.

Good luck in your work!