The density model: an alternative to trying to control the uncontrollable

18 February 2013

I have been thinking about the idea of density as a way of explaining why some policies seem to be more informed by evidence than others. I wrote about it back in 2011:

According to Mirko Lauer, a Peruvian journalist, the key factor that explains why some policy issues are more likely to be informed by research based knowledge than others is the density of information about those issues. At an event for aTrade and Poverty in Latin America programme in Lima in 2009, he gave the example of economic policymakers in Peru who, as well as the general public, are exposed to a myriad of publications that provide an effective vehicle for research, analysis and opinions on almost all economic policy issues: all the mayor national broadsheets have a daily economics section, there are at least two national specialised monthly magazines, a number of weekly magazines and newsletters, The Economist, Business Week and the Financial Times are readily available, and there are many more email or web-based information services. Furthermore, the Ministry of Economy and Finance, the Central Bank, and the National Statistics Office have their own internal research teams, databases and publications.

Hence, Lauer argued, all economic decisions, even if they turn out to be mistakes (which would undoubtedly be picked up by specialised journalists and researchers and fed back though the mentioned channels), are necessarily informed on some evidence. This is clearly not the situation for other policy issues such as those related to indigenous groups, the environment, reproductive health, security, etc. where research and general information and arguments about them is sporadically gathered and communicated, and subject to the ‘what bleeds leads’ mantra of newspapers and public opinion.

The ‘theory’ goes something like this:

In this theory, let’s call it the Density Theory, decisions take place within political spaces, which exist around specific policy processes but are connected to all others. These spaces involve different actors and belong to a broader political system. In each space there is, depending on factors like the sector and issue or the actors involved and interested, a certain amount of information communicated through different means to all those directly or indirectly involved in the policy decision. For two spaces of similar size (number of issues or actors, length of the process, populations affected, etc.) the one with more availability of information will have higher density than the other. In other words, where there is plenty of information available about a particular policy issue through a number of competing and complementary media (including think tanks, newspapers, NGOs, government bodies, etc.) there is high density; whereas where little information is available or where there are few or not readily available sources of information there is low density.

In the post I added a political interest dimension to the analysis but I’ll leave it out from this blog post (if you are curious: Never mind the gap: on how there is no gap between research and policy and on a new theory).

The purpose of increasing density (of good quality information and knowledge) is to maximise the chances that decisions will be more and better informed.

This is also the purpose of most ‘research to policy’ interventions; so how can the idea of density help them? Here is how (although I must warn you: implementing this will be a challenge):

The Density Model

First we must remember that this model is focused on a policy issue and/or policy space and aims to make decisions better informed (it does not aim to influence policy directly).

Secondly, the model, at least as I choose to present it, attempts to stay away from large and single complex interventions, avoids the fantasy that it is possible to engineer the ‘right’ policymaking process or control how research is used, and attempts, at all costs, to lift all (or as many as is possible) boats at the same time. Explicitly political players and the government (often led by a particular party or group) are, in this version, excluded from direct interventions; but they will certainly benefit indirectly.

To promote density I have identified 9 intervention opportunities (but only suggest that we consider 7 of them, at this stage):

  1. Education: This is the most important driver of density as it creates the basic input for the system: people. Education interventions refer to strengthening higher and tertiary education on a number of disciplines from the pure sciences to the pure politics as well as some combination of both. In other words, we want people who study the politics of science, political economy, etc. as well as just science and economics. 
  2. Research (and research centres and think tanks): This driver of density works best when there are sufficient competent researchers to work for these organisations and this depends on prior investments in education. Both public and private centres should be supported as well as pure academic research and more practical analysis.
  3. Publications: Everything from academic journals to popular publications as well as specialised or trade and more general audience titles should be promoted. Publications of course can be managed by universities, research centres, the media, public bodies, professional bodies, NGOs, etc. It does not matter as long as there are many and of different types and from different perspectives.
  4. Professional bodies and business associations: The advocates of knowledge intermediaries forget (or maybe they prefer not to mention the competition) that professional bodies (the school of engineers or economists) bring together people who share a discipline and work across academia, think tanks, policy, politics, the private sector, the media, etc. These are the perfect boundary organisations. Business associations and chambers of commerce play similarly important roles and are often the source of fantastic data on their industries or sectors. They too usually publish interesting trade publications and organise influential events (take for instance CADE in Peru: an annual meeting of business people that attracts the attention of politicians, the media and the public in general. Like a mini Davos.)
  5. Political Parties: I did not forget about them. I think that political parties are a crucial component of the system, but intervening in them is difficult and ought to be done carefully. In my view it is necessary to play the long game: education will produce the next generation of informed political leaders, think tanks and researchers will establish better links with these new political leaders and develop more stable institutional relations, business lobbies and associations, including unions, will also be staffed by better prepared leaders and influence parties in a more programmatic direction, etc. Donations to parties to develop central research departments would be equally important but this must be done by local/national philanthropists and interest groups.
  6. The government: Donors have this bizarre idea that by working with the government they are being politically neutral. In fact, by working with the government they help to keep the ruling party in power. Social programmes are, for anyone who has paid attention, political tools that governments have to enhance their popularity and retain power. Governments do not just hand out ‘cash’ or public services; they come with heavy branding that makes it clear who is giving it to them: the ruling party, not the opposition. So besides interventions to support civil service reform, strengthen existing institutions, and other similar efforts I am not too sure about what else should be done. In any case, support to public think tanks, publications, and data generation and publication should cover most of what can be done with the government. So both political parties and the government should be taken into consideration but interventions could be indirect of needs to be very carefully planned.
  7. Public engagement: Here is where things start to get a bit complicated as the intervention is no longer focused on a single type of organisation. Public engagement can be supported through a number of different ways albeit all pretty straight forward. For example, universities can establish a ‘chair for the public understanding of XYZ’, the media can develop info-graphics on a topic, social media can be used by individuals as well as research centres and researchers to make an issue more widely known, primary and high schools could incorporate an issue into their curricula, NGOs could launch national awareness campaigns, etc.). Public engagement need not be simply focused on practical simple ideas; it can also aim high and should treat the public with respect and attempting to include them in the conversation rather than keep them at arms length as if saying: ‘its complicated, you won’t get it’.
  8. DATA, DATA, DATA! If I had to limit the approach to just two interventions, I’d focus my attention on education and this (and possibly the next point, incentives). A couple of years ago, working in Zambia to develop a programme to promote economic policy debate, I suggested that one of the most important changes that could be made was to release the data that the government, NGOs, and private organisations hold privately. I showed some of the local researchers I was working with the website of Peru’s National Statistics Institute where anyone can download a number of surveys, the data sets, the questionnaires, and even studies carried out using that data. As a consequence researchers have access to one f the most valuable resources, for free. Even without a travel budget, without money to hire assistants, even without a project, a good researcher and analyst in a think tank, a newspaper, or NGO will come up with something interesting based on this data.
  9. Incentives: Rewards need not be expensive. Donors tend to think that all that matters is how much you pay for something. Small monetary rewards can make a difference but ‘honours’ are likely to go a longer way. Prices and commendations for the best publications, research, the most interesting media campaigns, the most forward thinking policymakers, etc. can make a great difference when it comes to encouraging the system to generate density.

Now, this looks like an impossible task. It certainly cannot be done by a single organisation and it probably shouldn’t. The model assumes that a private-public partnership as well as plenty of collaboration will be necessary. But even then a leader will be needed. Who the leader is will depend on the country and policy issue in question: it could be the private sector (a business association), a professional body, a think tank or a group of researchers, NGOs, a government body, or even a donor or a group of donors.

This collaboration is necessary because the model demands a long term commitment (10 to 20 years) and a willingness to let go and let the system develop that may only be possible if not one single actor ‘owns’ the initiative. Funding too, needs to be shared and it should come from:

  • Public education budgets (domestic and from Aid) and private universities;
  • Sectoral budgets from line ministries, decentralised or autonomous bodies, or local governments;
  • Research funds (domestics and from Aid);
  • The Private sector (CSR, philanthropy, Advertising, etc.); and
  • Entrepreneurial volunteering.

Additionally, the model should consider the following implementation advice:

  1. First, whoever takes on the lead (let us assume that this is a donor, national or foreign) should ensure to keep all interventions as simple as possible. Each set of drivers can be supported by one or more simple interventions.
  2. Simple interventions refer to providing cash or technical assistance (in the form of a person and nothing more than that) to help the organisations receiving the cash or TA do their job better. If they are research centres: $ to do better and more research, publications, or events; universities: $ to enrol more students or deliver better quality education by recruiting better lecturers; the media: TA to launch a new section or $ to commission new or better stories on the policy issue.
  3. Overlapping is OK. If more than one research centre wants to work on the same set of questions let them: this is the only way to get a debate going.
  4. Avoid intermediates between the $ or TA and the organisations or people supported. There is no need for them when the interventions are kept simple. There may be lots of contracts to issue but they will all be pretty simple and straight forward.
  5. Never provide funding that cannot be absorbed. For instance, do not fund research centres if they cannot find the right researchers to work for them (and have to poach them from other places); first fund universities to produce more and better researchers and then fund the centres. Or provide TA instead so that the organisations get a researcher from another country or region.
  6. Never fund without and exit strategy. If the funder is a donor it should consider who will pick up the tap after they have gone? If the funder is a domestic philanthropist it should take into account its own long term commitments to the issue and, when relevant, explore other resource options for the organisations it supports. It may well be that the exist strategy is not there simply because it does not need to be there. But this will not apply for foreign funders.
  7. Funding mechanisms should not encourage dependence or at least encourage multiple dependencies. Research centres should not all depend on one actor, the media should not depend on a single supporter, etc.
  8. Although leadership will need to be shared and certainly encouraged among domestic actors if they have not been the initiators, the leaders need to employ promoters, advocates, entrepreneurs and networkers. These are the kind of people who will be able to keep the process going, coordinate multiple interventions, monitor and evolving initiative, and incorporate lessons.
  9. The issues must be tangible avoiding the abstract and impossible (e.g. making poverty history or ‘development’). Policy issues ought to be things like forestry policy, agriculture, urban housing, etc.)
  10. Issues should be added in a related or connected manner so that each new sector contributes to the ones before. E.g.: Agriculture in arid areas, food security, water management, climate change adaptation, forestry and reforestation, etc.

A sample intervention on forestry and reforestation (to pick a topic) could look like this:

  • Education: Seed $ and/or scholarships for a Forestry Policy Postgraduate Degree at a couple of universities for students with backgrounds in economics, natural resources, political science, etc.
  • Research: A competitive research fund focused on forestry and reforestation to study political, economic and social bottlenecks and solutions to develop the sector.
  • Professional bodies: TA for the relevant business associations and local chambers of commerce to develop a research and analysis capacity and, possibly, frequent newsletters and more formal publications.
  • Publications: $ for an academic journal on Forestry Policy published by a research centre linked to a university; a Forestry publication published by the National Chamber of Timber; $ for a Forestry blog funded and managed by a national NGO; plus the various publications expected from the Research
  • Engagement: $ for an NGO-State schools led programme to include knowledge about forests and forest management in the national curricula; $ and TA for local radio and TV stations to produce documentaries on the forests of the country; a celebrity Forests ambassador appointed by business associations and NGOs to promote a sustainable use of forests in the media; a roadshow promoted by a forestry think tank and relevant business associations to encourage sustainable private sector investment in forests and reforestation; etc.
  • Data: $ to the national statistics office to undertake and publish a Forests survey every 3 years; TA assistance to the national statistics office, business associations, and reforestation and extraction companies to publish their own data in a safe and useful manner.
  • Incentives: An annual honours award to the best managed reforestation plantation; a $ award to the best research on forestry policy; media coverage for the most successful initiative by a school to promote sustainable forestry; a media-wide award for the best documentary, article or investigative journalism on forestry policy; etc.

So there you go. Simple? Well, not really but although the entire effort is quite complex each intervention should be rather straight forward. It will demand lots of preparation, networking, and monitoring.

In the meantime it would be good if any interventions considered this model and at least asked what is going on in each policy space that is likely to increase its density. Simply assuming that policies will be better informed because there is more research is mistaken. Nothing can guarantee that ‘this or that’ research will inform policy. But in a context where these is plenty of research and analysis to go around it is quite likely that some research will inform policy. And that is what we want; right?