The power of reflection when building your research agenda

9 August 2016
SERIES Doing policy relevant research

[Editor’s note: This post was written by Tanja Jakobi, Media analyst and researcher at CENTAR Public Policy Research Centre, Serbia. It is part of a series produced by and originally published at Politics & Ideas to share what the facilitators and participants learned through the online course Doing policy relevant research, which is now part of the On Think Tanks School’s Evolving Think Tanks Series. For more information about the upcoming course and if interested in registering, visit here.]

Let me start with one Serbian joke: “Have you read the book The Bridge Over the Drina?” (written by Ivo Andric, a Nobel Prize Winer in 1961) says one man to the other. “Read? Why would I?”, says the other man somewhat insulted. “I know it better than that. I walk over that bridge every day!”

As researchers, we “walk up and down” our research agenda all the time. We think and rethink our methodological approach, we worry about bits and pieces related to our focus groups, in-depth interviews, and statistical tools, or about the way we interpret the findings in context of previously gathered data in a meaningful way. We see policy gaps and give recommendations how they should be fixed. We walk through the process thoroughly and sternly.

But walking through the process is not exactly the same as reflecting on it. Often we are not aware of how much of our rigor we drew from academic work and to what extent we are immersed in it; or we take for granted that if something has academic merit, it would have merit for society as well; and that it will affect policymakers and the public just because of its quality and relevance. Sometimes, or even more often than not, it is the case – our work is well known within our closest NGO circle, it is implemented in certain public policy solutions, replicated by other researchers, and valued by donors who supported our work. It sometimes gets its spot in media, too. Success varies due to many reasons, one of them being that we are all different types of policy entrepreneurs, if at all.

It might be not enough if we want to establish ourselves as a think tank whose resources and impact are well recognised among policymakers and donors at large, and sought after by the media as an important source of knowledge and interlocutors in the areas that we cover – security and social-economic policies, in our case.

Before the course on Doing Policy Relevant Research, we were aware that there were a few roadblocks and we tried to fix them through various actions in line with the types of projects we were engaged in and, of course, based on ideas that each team had about the process.  But we were looking for something more: the institutional support which would allow us to reflect on our institutional and personal research agenda in the broader context and allow us to share our experience, struggles and doubts with our counterparts.

It is often said that where ordinary people see a plain smooth path, philosophers see a road full of potholes. During the Politics&Ideas course, while reflecting on our institutional and personal research agendas we discovered several potholes in the way we do things:

  1. In designing our research topics: we should introduce policymakers and donors in the process much earlier than we usually do, which is usually in the process of drafting our findings. While it was useful, and we certainly think that we should proceed with it, we felt encouraged to involve them in the early stages of the process;
  2. In gathering data: we should introduce more statistical tools, and if we want to convey data in a way easier to grasp by policymakers and the public, we should be capable of translating our statistics into meaningful infographics and data visualisations;
  3. On communicating our research: we should enhance the policy relevance and impact of our research by improving our communication tools so that they are inbuilt in every step of our projects. This means we should communicate our ideas, not just at the beginning of one project, or in the process of drafting the conclusions, or once when we presented our findings, but all the way through to make our entire work consistent, meaningful, and useful in the course of policymaking process. In the case of our Centre, this means (among other things) that we should put more effort into consistently turning our policy recommendations into series of policy briefs which will pull their scientific merit from the previous findings, but interpret them and build on them, taking into consideration new challenges in policy making; and
  4. On learning: we have began to think about how to turn things we learn (from our own work and that of others) into an institutional gain.

During the course, we had a lot of discussion among ourselves on how to implement some of the lessons learned. Before writing the proposal for our next project we decided to pay a visit to a donor we hadn’t worked with before, and exchange ideas about our research interest and why we think it is relevant for policymaking. The effort proved to be successful, and we are currently working on it.

We also introduced a new data visualisations into another project, which proved to be useful both for making things clearer and easier to follow. It made policy shortcomings more easy to comprehend and the importance for policymakers to fix them more urgent. We also produced several policy briefs based on our previous research focus but with new relevant data and comments related to new processes of policy making. Some of these efforts proved to be more successful than others.

Bottom line, however, there is no single course of action which will be an instant remedy to the various problems think tanks face in their everyday work. However, we ave incorporated one important ingredient into our regular walking routine. And that is reflection.

Out of this reflection we have made changes to the way we work. One change is to make a sort of the rulebook which will put together our new and previous experience and to which every researcher in the Centre will be abel turn to when he or she faces doubts about balancing his/hers own research agenda with the Centre’s own. By all means this will make our walk (up and down the bridge) easier.

However, it is important for us to maintain a reflexive attitude towards ourselves and others to build an organisation that is more than its separate parts. How to do that, requires a lot of thinking.