Strengthening evidence use: top tips from leading southern thinktankers

23 May 2024

In the Think tank state of the sector 2023 report, 12% of the global think tanks surveyed said that governments’ evidence use and decision-making processes are key challenges for them.

To explore this further, we organised a webinar to explore the concept of evidence use and provide recommendations on how think tanks can strengthen evidence use in policy-making.

The panellists were three executive directors of southern think tanks, who are working directly with governments to improve evidence use:

  1. Fréjus Thoto, African Centre for Equitable Development (ACED). +
  2. Laura dos Santos Boeira, Veredas , Brazil. +
  3. Vaqar Ahmed, Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), Pakistan. +

Joined by representatives of 30 think tanks from the OTT School and alumni network, they shared their insights on why evidence-informed decision-making is critical and how their organisations are working to strengthen demand for evidence use.

Their insights highlighted the critical role that think tanks can play in supporting evidence use in decision-making, and the capacities they need in order to do this.

By working in coalitions, diversifying their evidence sources, building capacity for evidence use, tailoring evidence for the civil service, and targeting the right audience, think tanks can work towards strengthening evidence use in decision-making.

In this blog, we’ll share the issues discussed and five top tips for how think tanks can work towards strengthening evidence use.

Evidence use in practice

What does evidence use look like in practice? And how can think tanks know if and where there is demand for it?

According to Vaqar, “emergency times create demand for evidence. For example, during the Covid-19 pandemic, people were looking for answers, which created a demand for evidence.”

Political system shifts, such as the transition of a country’s political system to a democracy,  might also create a demand for evidence due to the introduction of public participation.

All think tanks are interested in producing evidence, but some are also thinking about how to strengthen evidence use.

Veredas, for instance, was started in 2016 by public servants who were frustrated with the government’s failure to use evidence.

As Laura put it, “we thought it was absurd to have decision making policy done in a small room, with people that probably haven’t seen the whole complexity of Brazil.”

Fréjus noted that, while governments often use knowledge to make decisions, it remains a mystery to many outsiders what kind of knowledge they use.

This evidence-use approach is different from think tanks’ normal policy influence approach.  The policy influence approach involves both generating evidence and strategically disseminating it to policy-makers and stakeholders to drive specific policy changes.

Conversely, the evidence-use approach is broader and encompasses how policy-makers integrate various types of evidence, including research from think tanks, into their decision-making processes.

While think tanks may contribute to this process by providing evidence, the evidence-use approach is concerned with the overall use of evidence across all sources to inform policy decisions, including (but not limited to) think tank research. This is an important approach in addressing the challenge of evidence use by policy-makers.

Evidence use can enhance the legitimacy of policies and fosters trust in government institutions.

OTT’s evidence use strand of work seeks to understand and support evidence use in public decision-making by government agencies, political parties, donors and multilaterals.

Five tips to strengthen evidence use

In the webinar, our panel of leading southern thinktankers shared the following top tips:

  1. Build trusted relationships with policy-makers

Close relationships with policy-makers are critical – especially those working at the technical level. These are the ones who will be there after the politicians have changed and who are working below the political layer, where there may be opposition to evidence that conflicts with political interests or manifestos.

Policy-makers are more likely to support policies proposed by individuals or organisations they trust, regardless of their political affiliation. Therefore, to effectively advocate for their policy objectives, it’s important for individuals and organisations to invest in building relationships with policy-makers based on trust and mutual respect.

As Laura noted, “informal relationships are key drivers of sustainable evidence use – build long-lasting relationships with civil servants, align your evidence interests with their needs and be flexible to change.”

Think tanks can build long-term relationships with stakeholders and tailor their evidence to meet the needs of decision-makers.

Our participants also reminded us that the most impactful relationships are not only (or even mainly) held at the national level. Engaging on a subnational level helps to focus locally and to capture local expertise, enabling think tanks to “try to change small things to then be able to change big things” – as one participant put it.

  1. Work in coalitions

Collaborating in coalitions is essential for think tanks, especially when working in highly politicised, risky environments. Building coalitions to support evidence use requires strength and openness in collaborations with various stakeholders, both vertically and horizontally.

This approach broadens the constituency for evidence use, ultimately providing leverage for effective policy-making.

  1. Diversify evidence sources

Think tanks can diversify their evidence sources to ensure that evidence does not always come from the ‘usual suspects’.

Laura noted that Veredas and the Latin American and Caribbean Evidence Hub (Hub LAC) drew on World Health Organisation (WHO) tools and qualitative evidence to avoid an approach that was too general: “we understood that it was important to not present one piece of evidence, but a collection of different types of evidence.”

By diversifying their evidence sources, think tanks can cater for the diverse needs of decision-makers, moving beyond a focus on promoting their own evidence and towards an evidence-use approach, which supports the ongoing use of multiple types and sources of evidence.

The Hub LAC directors elaborate the relevance of diverse types of evidence and the coalition work in Building the future of knowledge translation in the Global South.

  1. Build capacity for evidence use

Think tanks can play a key role in strengthening the capacity of policy-makers and technical advisors on using evidence; all our speakers drew on long experience of delivering training and other forms of capacity development to policy-makers.

Vaqar noted, “training policy-makers on demanding evidence correctly; demanding evidence when it’s most needed; how to procure rapid evidence in the face of, let’s say, natural/man-made disasters, help with capacity building.”

He says more about this in Connecting evidence to policy: seven key lessons for researchers.

  1. Understanding users

Fréjus noted, “just training is not enough, it becomes a tick box exercise. ACED now spends lots of energy trying to understand the evidence users in a ministry and now bases all our capacity development on actual policy processes… we changed our approach to understanding what a normal day for a technical advisory looks like, and only after that were we able to craft a capacity-building programme for them based on the actual policy processes.”

In a blog post last year, Fréjus shared how ACED understands different profiles of decisionmakers in the civil service.

Building a nuanced understanding of civil servants’ needs and working environments can also help think tanks in their role as evidence producers by enabling them to tailor their evidence to the right audiences.

This involves targeting top decision-makers, technical advisors and other stakeholders – it’s important to remember that the ‘unusual suspects’ can be just as powerful: the ‘real’ stakeholders are not always those that are officially recorded.

The future

In feedback exercises after the webinar, think tanks from OTT’s network showed a strong interest in working on evidence use in the future. They told us that the practical tips and work showcased from other southern think tanks had strengthened their understanding of evidence-use approaches.

In the future, they suggested exploring the use of technology in improving evidence use, ways to safeguard evidence from miscommunication, and communication techniques to support evidence use.

We’re looking forward to continuing this conversation at the 2024 OTT Conference in Barcelona, Spain.