Context: why focus on public institutions and on politics?

[Editor’s note: This post is part a series produced by Vanesa Weyrauch and Leandro Echt from Politics&Ideas to share what we learn through the project “Going beyond ‘Context matters”, supported by the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP).]


As we have already shared in some previous posts, P&I jointly with INASP are about to publish a study called “Going beyond context matters”, which has two main objectives: 1) to detect which are the windows of opportunity of different contexts for researchers and policymakers to better interact with each other or work jointly; and 2) to inform the design and delivery of capacity building efforts with regard to the use of research evidence in policy making, by better deciphering how to deal with the context.

By Mark Hunter under CC at flickr

By Mark Hunter under CC at flickr

We have already shared what we consider by context in a previous post: we consider it the environment or setting in which the proposed change is to be implemented. However, context is clearly a quite complex environment where different levels of policy decisions and implementation take place as the results of simultaneous interacting among several stakeholders (not only policymakers but also those trying to influence them or affected by them such as citizens, media, private companies, unions, civil society organisations, research centres, etc.).

After going through relevant literature on the topic and based on our own experience, we decided to focus the framework on the factors that affect the use of research at the level of government institutions taking this as the context, instead of concentrating on macro level factors.

There are several reasons that justify this focus. First of all, we believe that concrete governmental institutions constitute the most obvious and direct environment where practices to promote the use of knowledge in policy take place. They are the setting where most decisions about policies are discussed and most importantly, in the case of executive branch institutions, where they are implemented. Thus, chances for research to inform different aspects of their working are present, more systematically and in a continuous way.

Second, the macro context approach, which has dominated the limited existing literature on context, largely focuses on the level of particular socioeconomic and political realities at the national level (such as extent of political freedom, media freedom, etc.). Macro context factors, as we analyse in the framework paper, are usually beyond the sphere of control or influence of those trying to promote the use of knowledge in policy, either from the inside or outside the State. In this sense, since the study aims at helping to more effectively and strategically identify potential areas of change for different types of interventions, looking mainly into such macro level factors does not appear to be a good choice.

Third, change at the institutional level bears more potential than just focusing on the individual. As Harle and Ademokun (2014) expressed, even though training people is still really important, this alone isn’t sufficient to achieve lasting results. There is a need to be thinking about how individuals are enabled – or not – by the broader environment for research, and how they work together, within and across departments and institutions.

Last but not least, the role of institutions in enabling systemic change has also been widely recognised in development-related projects. There is a promising potential to contribute to change when focusing at the institutional level, due to the significant role borne by institutions within any system.

Even though there is not yet a body of evidence on positive change within governmental institutions leading to better outcomes for the society, dysfunctional and ineffective public institutions and weak governance are increasingly regarded to be at the heart of development challenges. These usually lead to misguided resource allocation, excessive government intervention, and arbitrariness and corruption, which all have clear consequences on how evidence is or not used to inform policy decisions.

Even while focusing on institutions and thus narrowing the scope of our study, we acknowledge that our endeavour is broad and complex. When aiming at enhancing chances for research to interact with policy, we are aware of the fact that policies do not emerge from a vacuum but generally are the result of bargaining among contending groups—with the interplay among them shaped by the institutional and political “rules of the game.” (World Bank, 2000: 7-8).

Therefore, we continuously stress the need to avoid facing proposed changes as mere technocratic or resource challenges. On the contrary, the politics implied in any institutional strengthening process need to be established at the top of any change agenda. This also entails factoring ourselves (those desiring and pushing for change) in this type of processes, taking into account power relationships.

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