[This article was originally published in the On Think Tanks 2018 Annual Review. ]
As think tank professionals, it’s easy to be in tune with current events, policy research, evidence-informed policymaking, impact evaluations and the importance of public engagement. Through the Semana de la Evidencia Latinoamericana (Latin American Evidence Week) – an international festival of events celebrating, discussing and showcasing the work of different organisations in evidence-based decision-making – we sought to make this relevant for the Latin American public at large.
Research is more valuable and valid when it is informed by the public (or users). In 2018, the Semana de la Evidencia organised more than 90 events with more than 80 organisations in 16 countries.
Evidence can come from a variety of sources, including citizens, and the public can engage with data evidence by being part of the process of collecting information, evaluating conclusions, questioning politicians, or by participating in activities that combine data evidence and political sentiment.
Informed and interested citizens make this exchange better, and the impact greater. The public needs to be aware of the implications of policymaking and to seek feedback loops between them, researchers and decision-makers. Citizens should feel able to ‘try out’ policies and improve on them, and that documentation and evidence-based agreements are mechanisms to prevent corruption.
But things can be complicated in a context like Latin America, where: scientific research is not a priority; corruption threatens people’s interest and motivation to get involved in politics; evidence, empirical research and social sciences are undervalued; religion is strong and pervasive in policy; and a large percentage of the population is poor, undernourished, illiterate or under-educated and misinformed.
Semana de la Evidencia provided a platform for a wide range of institutions and topics to come together, presenting an opportunity for participants to become more informed about the way governments regulate and source evidence; how to influence non-governmental organisations and private sector research agendas; and the role of international actors in Latin American policymaking through financing and designing development projects.
The week’s events: were interactive and promoted public participation (ideally at 50%); had gender-balanced panels, and definitely no all-male panels; included brief, entertaining and easily understandable presentations; and engaged actors and stakeholders from multiple sectors.
An active partnership with media outlets was also important to achieve public attendance at the event. Appearances in digital and traditional media enabled us to educate a broader audience about the upcoming festival and how public engagement in policy research is essential to improve people’s lives. At the event, experts could grill politicians with the right questions to motivate better informed and transparent government actions. Interesting synergies could be formed from having a well-informed view of current events and being connected to multiple specialties.
In 2018, its third edition, Semana de la Evidencia sought to have more fringe events, such as photography exhibitions, music and drama presentations. This is something that will be expanded on in future years. Like media relations, alternative events can also garner the interest of a broader audience and provide opportunities to have more public engagement in research or the socialisation of a policy. There is always more work to be done in fostering such partnerships, making research and the concept of evidence-informed policy more accessible, and broadening communications. With more than 10,000 people in attendance (and thus more informed citizens), this should not be a challenge in 2019.