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Building capacity to understand how policy is really crafted: an example from Manila University

Can you imagine the faces of your local policymakers if exposed to a Prezi presentation with images like the ones below representing the policymaking processes in which they usually take part?

They would at least grin, if they are very politically correct. Well, even when the linear model has been widely questioned (Sutton: 1999) in political science these types of representations of policy processes are often used in development of plans, presentations, etc. They frame the way research organisations and researchers plan how they are going to influence policymakers.

However, there are many strategies to work differently in this direction and help researchers new to the ground better assess opportunities and challenges they will face if they are interested in having their evidence inform a policy proces . A while ago, Anne Lan Candelaria, from Ateneo de Manila University (Manila, Philippines) shared through ebpdn a very attractive and sound way of developing researchers´ capacity to understand the policy making process, clearly recognizing this skill as a key and elemental step to inform policy with ideas emerging from research.

www.laits.utexas.edu

www.bemidjistate.edu

 

In this university, identified faculty members are encouraged to work on various models of “service learning”. The idea is that their course requirement is a paper/project that a partner community/ local government unit can use for policy-making purposes.

The teachers provide the necessary skills and theoretical inputs during the semester and then guide their students to write research/policy/project management papers for a need identified by our partner. In most cases, they sit down with our partner prior to the beginning of the semester and plan with them. Part of this ‘planning’ is needs identification.

For example, Anne teaches a graduate level course on Public Policy attended by part time master students who work in the morning (in NGOs, government, etc.) and also brilliant students with zero practice on the ground which makes a very interesting mix. They work on the theories and skills part the first half of the semester, by reviewing both traditional literature from developed countries and also discussing on real examples from the Philippines and other developing countries, for example Latin American ones. The latter usually reveal that the process is not that coded or organized but instead rather chaotic, unpredictable and conflicting.

Still, there is a large bridge to cross between understanding the difference from the theory and rationally and experiencing this difference personally, emotionally and on the field. Thus, Anne requires her students to develop research through supervised field work (data collection, etc.)  at the second half of the semester.. Towards the end of it, the students present the findings and recommendations to the local policy makers and get their comments, suggestions and other additional inputs. The students then revise accordingly and submit two copies of their paper at the end of the semester – one to her (for class purposes) and the other one to the community partner.

This original idea emerged from Anne´s prior experience in the Center for Educational Development, where she used to function as the interface between researchers from the center and policymakers.  She then realized that that she could also bridge the worlds by using the classroom: she could connect excellent and committed students who are willing to do great research projects but have no links with policymakers, with good mayors with no energy nor time nor resources to search for partners that can provide them with the needed information and evidence.

Part of the agreement is that students will go and spend some time with both the community and local government. The latter is in charge of providing security and assistance and access to public documents. This means that they work with progressive policymakers, with initial interest in research. They also select those who are transparent in the sense that they are willing to share internal information.

One key decision of this practice is that students do not only interact with the local policymakers. They need to get in touch and understand the community as well. So, they frequently conduct interviews to local stakeholders such as fishermen, farmers and teachers as well as household surveys. In this way they can have an initial assessment of the demand that policymakers may experience, in terms of needs, expectations, etc.

They usually convene at night and Anne does a quick rapid assessment on data, and they decide what additional work is needed for the next day. Students are free to return to the town and continue gathering information, observing the community, interacting with local government.

The presentation of their drafts is a turning point to many of them. Their policy papers frequently include recommendations which are usually very expensive; thus Anne requires them to think about this so as to temper recommendations. She also urges students to better prioritize recommendations as well as understand the implications of not following some for others.

What happens with policymakers´ capacities to use this evidence? Anne acknowledges that most of the time policymakers behave as incrementalists: they don’t think big nor long term. Their main questions are: “How do I survive today (don´t talk to them as millionaires, they are budget-constrained!)”? and “How do I get voted tomorrow (if the recommendation will not take them in that direction they lose interest very quickly). Political acceptability is a key criteria when refining draft for final presentation to policymakers.

Finally, students are also are asked to do a reflection on the process itself and explore what they have learned from  the whole experience not only from the technical standpoint but also in terms of their perceptions and feelings towards how government works and how they can contribute through research.

The usual theme of their reflections should not be underestimated: governance is a complicated matter. In fact, some may be very good politicians and willing to use the evidence to foster change but face severe limitations in terms of mechanisms not being there to implement them, or compromised policy, etc. They realize it´s not as easy as what the book says! They are able to experience the difficulties of a mayor in the ground which I regard as a one of the most important benefits of this practice.

Last but not least, for those interested in exploring similar mechanisms, Anne share some tips on what makes this work:  (1) the policy makers are part of the process from beginning to end, hence there is a sense of ownership; (2) because this is weaved into the classroom practice (rather than viewed as an ‘extension’ or ‘service’ of what we do as a university), it is more attractive to faculty members who have very little time to spare outside of teaching; and (3) the ‘cost’ to facilitate/run this is built into the ‘classroom cost’ (for lack of a better term) which is more efficient and sustainable.

This links to a crucial point in terms of CB in our field: should we work more with universities? Should related capacities and skills be engrained in the way they prepare students? This is for certain something worth exploring in a future post.