Capacity development for policymakers: a new opportunity to learn and co-create relevant knowledge

[Editor’s note: This post is the first of a series produced by Vanesa Weyrauch and Leandro Echt from Politics&Ideas to share what we learn through the development and conduction of an online course targeted to policymakers in Latin America on the use of research in policy.]


Thanks to the support of Vayayiko Grants from INASP, at P&I we have recently started a new project to enhance current capacity of mid-level policymakers in Latin America to contribute to a vivid culture of using evidence in policymaking through an online course to be delivered in early 2015.

So far, we have done a lot of work with policy research institutions and researchers, but very little with policymakers. Although there has been in the past years a rise of offers to strengthen what many individuals call the demand side of evidence informed policymaking, the current approach is mostly based in promoting a general and conceptual framework on the topic along with providing them with the required technical skills to better assess what research to use, how to use it, etc. Our assumption is that more emphasis on the politics implied in that process so as to better gauge how research can interplay with other relevant factors in their decision making processes.

Indeed, our experience in working with policymakers reveals that they need further support in terms of leading change within their agencies to promote better use of research. In fact, it is not enough for them to be interested in incorporating more evidence in their decision making processes and to count with the needed technical advice and support for this. They also need to better assess how they can carry evidence informed policy discussions and decisions within their complex environment. We believe that there is not enough understanding of the political economy implied in this whole process that feeds into capacity building activities so as to approach the promoted change in a more systematic way.

We are also concerned about the low involvement of policymakers in developing useful knowledge for capacity building activities. We believe that to develop content that is of real use and value for policymakers in developing countries, we need to largely involve them in the co-production of new knowledge, especially by enabling them to set the research agenda in this matter and also by systematizing their rich and experience on the field. In Latin America there is already a critical mass of policymakers that adhere to the benefits of bringing more research into the policy table and that have sought to do so throughout their careers. However, their knowledge in this direction is mainly informally shared with their followers. There is yet a lost opportunity to capitalize on their experience so as to pave the way for upcoming cadres of policymakers.

Thus, the first step we have decided to take in this endeavor is creating a Strategy Content Group, composed by former or current senior policymakers from different countries in Latin America with a significant academic or research background. Their participation will provide several benefits: it will ensure that the course is attractive to mid-level policymakers to take part in, it will guarantee that the content is relevant, and most importantly it will provide an opportunity for the high-level policymakers’ knowledge to be systematized and passed on, rather than lost.

We are currently inviting several of them to join in, and gradually receiving interest and good feedback on the relevance and need of this course. We look forward to their feedback on our preliminary curricula and will share what we learn from them and their contributions in upcoming posts. And we welcome any good ideas on how to think about capacity development on this topic for policymakers, including literature, good and bad experiences, and food for thought!

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Hello! Great to hear you are thinking of implementing an approach that tackles the politics of the use of evidence. In INASP we have been trying different approaches to involve policy-makers in the capacity building programme that we conduct, we are learning every day how to do it better, some of these lessons might help you shape your approach. In Zimbabwe we have created an on-line discussion group with members of the ministries and parliament we are going to work with, members of academia that are familiar with research and policy and members of NGOs that are interested in seeing more informed public decisions. At the beginning we thought that sharing the content of our draft modules would be enough to get feedback. However, with time we realised that to engage participants in an active discussion, we needed to come up with key questions that are controversial enough to generate discussion but are still relevant to inform the content (indirectly). For example, a very agitated discussion was around what we mean by evidence and if it is actually being used in the day to day work in the ministries. The conversation started at a very high theoretical level which was difficult for practitioners to feel identified, so we brought it down with concrete cases and examples that can happen in reality [the tip here is then to always use an example after an explanation or definition]. Of course this also rose the challenges related to the use of evidence. In the end, something that started quite theoretical, ended being a very useful discussion not only to get concrete examples of the challenges but also concrete examples of where evidence is used – however, many times the examples were not related to research evidence but other types of evidence, which says a lot when it comes to designing a course on EIPM.
    In Ghana we have less access to policy-makers, however we tried to incorporate them in the course content discussion through a face to face meeting we had with potential trainers. In it we piloted the sessions that we thought would be delivered in a real course to see how people reacted to them.The result was not only that people got to understand the overall idea of what a course of EIPM looks like but also provided us with concrete examples of what happens in the daily work life. It was very enriching.
    We are still exploring these and other ways of developing the content for the course and I am sure we can share more lessons in the future. Really looking forward to hearing your own experiences, I am sure that in the end we can get a better understanding of how these methodologies improve capacity building programmes.

    • Thank you, Clara, for sharing your own strategies. In our case we need to rely on virtual mechanisms since the course is regional and the Budget does not allow us to physically convene policymakers from different countries. We all know how challenging keeping online discussions can become in our too busy world. However, I agree that providing some controversial statements/questions as well as linking discussions with very practical examples is usually more effective. Please continue sharing your valuable lessons!
      We are struggling to find senior policymakers with enough time as to become part of the Strategic Group but we are getting there! For future endeavors I think we should team up with one or two former policymakers with academic commitment and work together from scratch, including designing the project. Until then we will explore ways of enabling this Content Strategy Group largely influence the content and methodology of the course. We´ll keep everyone posted!

  2. Thanks Vanessa for a stimulating post. I think you are right that getting policy makers engaged and involved from the outset is critical. But this also has to be balanced with the fact that people often don’t know what they don’t know! I see this in my own work with policy makers in the UK and elsewhere – if you ask people what barriers prevent them from using evidence they will often cite time constraints etc but will very rarely acknowledge that they also lack some of the skills necessary to find/use evidence. In reality both are important. Of course it is true that none of us has enough time to do all the things we would love to do – but on the other hand if people had better skills in finding/using evidence they might find they would have to devote far less time to it than they imagine. Another example is understanding of research methods – I have never heard a policy maker say “what I really need is to understand basic research methodology” – but in fact once people have a basic understanding of what research is and how different methods can be used to answer different questions they are far more empowered to appraise evidence that is presented to them.

    • Thank you, Kristie, for pointing out the need to balance perspectives and we are striving to do that throughout this project. Indeed, we agree that many policymakers as well as we as researchers and/or practitioners often don’t know what we don’t know. However, in this specific case I believe some type of policymakers know more about the use of evidence than they would think they know. For the Content Strategy Group we are bringing in experienced individuals with a recognised trajectory in terms of trying to inform policy with research. They bring with them implicit knowledge on real barriers and opportunities within the State that we think we would not be able to detect otherwise.
      On the other hand, the survey is wider and seeks to include views and thoughts from a more heteregenous group but still probably those who are convinced of the value of using research and evidence for making and implementing policy decisions.
      Probably there is room to further unpack this group that is called policymakers: they are so different and consequently would play so diverse roles realtaed to the changes we try to promote! Would that not be also applied to researchers and practitioners? Probably embracing diversity and trying to understand the different potential approaches will help all of us better identify what each can bring into the table.

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