Is influencing policy itself the Holy Grail?

7 February 2017

This post was originally published on Politics & Ideas

In current debates on what policy influence is and how to assess if a policy research organisation has been successful in its efforts to influence policy or not, there is an increasing acknowledgment of the complexity of this task. There are many questions on how much can actually be measured and what is worth measuring .

Through the MEL course taught at the On Think Tanks School, we have found significant agreement on the need to expand what is considered under the concept of policy influence to include, for example, short term outcomes at the actors’ level: changes in attitudes, behaviours, beliefs, or discourses. These changes are needed so their decisions can be influenced and they can consequently modify or create new policies informed by research. Recognition of the long path and diverse nature of “influence” is key in terms of assessing what has worked and what has not. For instance, a policymaker adopting a direct recommendation might seem like a success, but it might turn to be a failure when he or she decides to provide a new service without carefully managing its costs.  In her post on Politics &Ideas, Ulviyya Mikayilova, Policy Unit manager at the Center for Innovations in Education in Azerbaijan, describes this paradoxical situation and argues the need to re-consider what policy influence really is.

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Moreover, contributing to a very specific change in policy (for instance, developing a formula to calculate a fair distribution of new funds aimed at expanding school hours for impoverished students) is just part of the story. It is not enough to acknowledge the efforts, activities, strategies and relationships that a group of researchers has used to inform, convince, or help others develop a change in policy. Once the new content is there, there is a long path to walk to turn that change into real impact on the beneficiaries of such policy. Are think tanks or policy research institutions accountable for that? Should they be? Is it enough to claim contribution to a change in policy  based on high quality relevant research?

This is not a minor dilemma. Where does the work stop? Where should  policy influence stop? Is it at the design stage (i.e. having been successful at finding an effective way for research informed ideas to have a role in a new policy or the modification of an existing one)? What about implementation?

Some organisations may immediately shy away from what happens after. It is the role of the State and it is within the government’s capacity to ensure that policies are deployed in a manner intended to reach the expected results. External stakeholders can never be accountable for that and should not try to influence or control that process. Furthermore, doing so would diminish the State´s capacity and accountability.

Others, on the contrary, decide to get further involved: some by monitoring and evaluating the results of the policy to inform future efforts, looking out for the interests of the beneficiaries. Others engage in policy implementation: they roll up their sleeves and provide technical assistance or develop the capacity of public servants to ensure the policy is implemented correctly (or, at least, stays in the right direction). This also provides learning for future efforts and recommendations. However, what happens if they can only do this in the initial trials? Do these organisations have enough resources (human and financial) to really play a role in implementing policies of mid or large scale? Would they lose independence, autonomy, or the capacity to continue innovating?

Of course, there is no unique or right answer to these challenges. Quite the contrary: it requires that those playing the game reflect and determine what their best role would be. Answers may vary according to diverse political contexts, organisational priorities and values, or the existing capacity of external stakeholders to play similar roles.

Policy influence is a kaleidoscope and one cannot ignore the need to remain flexible and dynamic. However, one should avoid the risk of just going with the flow and responding when demand and opportunities arise. Organisations must take the time to re-visit their main goals, along with their mission and vision. Structure makes a policy research organisation healthy by conserving its identity; some flexibility allows it to stay relevant and be valued and needed. Striking a balance between structure and flexibility is not easy, but it helps the institution thrive in an ever changing and increasingly complex policy world.