Evidence use amid political uncertainty: three think tank strategies from OTT Conference 2023

29 April 2024
SERIES Think tanks and political uncertainty 7 items

At last year’s OTT conference, think tanks gathered to discuss how to support evidence use amid political uncertainties. Their examples ranged from elections and hung parliaments to military takeovers, from government restructures to economic crises, and from changes in leadership to shifts in policy direction. 

The session was opened by contributions from experts at the forefront of supporting evidence use in policy-making. A wider discussion with participants followed. + 

The speakers shared a sense of the ‘shifting sands’ of relationships: the fracturing and dissembling of established science– policy networks. They described a sense both of galvanisation and of indecision and paralysis, and also of uncertainty about how to respond.  

There was an awareness both of the risks and the opportunities that political uncertainties can hold, and the total unpredictability that can make them difficult to distinguish.  

Looking ahead to 2024, with elections in over 60 countries, these insights on evidence use during political upheaval remain crucial.  

Here are three strategies think tanks are using to navigate uncertainty.

1. Seizing opportunities: people fight harder for evidence when it’s under threat 

The speakers highlighted a sense of galvanisation among civil servants suddenly in need of evidence and of evidence producers sensing unexpected windows of opportunity.  

While political uncertainty can pose barriers to evidence use, it can also strengthen resolve for evidence use in certain government spaces.  

Our participants shared examples of increased demand for evidence by civil servants when political leadership in the US and Brazil was seen as ‘anti-evidence’.  

Focusing evidence use efforts at the technical or bureaucratic layer can be a way to transcend, or even subvert, anti-evidence political currents. 

2. Protecting your independence and partnerships: saying no

For think tanks and brokering organisations at the research–policy interface, sometimes saying no to taking sides is necessary to navigate political uncertainty and safeguard established networks and partnerships. 

For instance, in one case of government restructuring that created conflict between key partners in the Science Technology and Innovation sector in Uganda, UNAS chose to abstain from taking sides to preserve existing partnerships and relationships. 

In other scenarios shared from Bolivia, crises such as the pandemic and a new government after 40-years of the previous administration, prompted civil servants to actively seek research and evidence for policymaking. However, Bolivian evidence producers were cautious about engaging with policymakers for fear of becoming involved in the political environment.  

3. Building capacity to enable agile responses      

In order either to seize opportunities or to say no, organisations at the research/policy interface need established capacity and resilience.   

Our discussion showed that in many different contexts, from the UK to Uganda, embedded capability – organisational as well as individual – can enable the agility and responsiveness that is necessary to respond to political uncertainties.  

Many participants affirmed that the capacity development of evidence users, producers and brokers is a key way to build resilience in evidence-use systems. 

For example, having some existing institutionalised capacity for evidence use within the Ministry of Health enabled Chile to respond to the Covid-19 crisis faster than some neighbouring countries.    

What does this tell us?  

We need a better and more nuanced understanding of how politics  affects evidence use, especially in southern contexts. This is what we’re calling for at OTT. 

We’ve seen this come up again and again in our work –  political factors are often acknowledged, but (we believe) not often explored with enough nuance and detail to reflect the diversity and complexity of the contexts we work in. 

This is not a new call, it’s a gap that has been identified for at least a decade. As Vivian Tseng wrote in 2012: “Rather than viewing politics as a nuisance to be set aside, it behoves us to increase our understanding of how the political and policy process works…and how it influences research use.”  

Efforts in   capacity development and the ‘institutionalisation of evidence’ are sometimes held up as      going against a politically informed approach; they may be seen as narrow, linear and      technocratic. Yet, our speakers reminded us that this is a false distinction.  

As an earlier OTT Talks podcast episode also pointed out, it’s precisely because of the need to build resilience in the face of political instability that efforts to build capacity among evidence users are      undertaken     .  

This was compellingly illustrated by Natalia Koga in her comparison of the fates of two evidence units under Bolsonaro’s government at last year’s WHO Global Evidence-to-Policy Summit.      

Continuing the discussion in 2024 

In a session for the OTT School participants and alumni this year, we started exploring the implications for think tanks who work on strengthening capacity for evidence use.  

We’ll continue to expand upon this discussion at the OTT conference 2024 in Barcelona this year by exploring the following questions:  

  • How can we improve our understanding and response to political dynamics?  
  • What capacities do think tanks need to work on evidence use in such contexts?