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Defining problems or providing solutions? The role of ideas in policy debates

Today I am sharing a new working paper with you: “Defining problems or providing solutions? The role of ideas in policy debates.” Ideas are a key concept to link research and policy, and theory and practice. Little research, however, is available on what ideas are and how they evolve. To explore the concept of ideas in policy debates, I have chosen two laws that have recently been enacted in Ecuador. The first policy relates to the new law for universities that seeks, on the one hand, to align the universities’ activities with the National Development Plan, and on the other hand, to promote more and better research. The second refers to the law for popular economy that develops a new regulatory framework for small and medium scale financial institutions.

I chose these two laws because they combine academic concepts with ideological stances. Furthermore, by being discussed in the legislature, laws are highly politicized with a wide range of stakeholders involved and coverage by the media.

Many authors, including myself in previous studies, have followed the path of ‘research towards policy’, giving research a leading role in the story. But what if we take a different path and put the spotlight on the policies themselves and how they developed? Maybe research plays a different role? Maybe we can see other aspects of the policy debate that have been hidden with the previous approach?

To take this wider approach on policy changes, I use the framework of ideas shared by Mehta (2010) that include three levels: policy solutions, problem definitions and public philosophies. Through this framework, we explore what are the key aspects that determined the spirit and content of both laws.

Here are some key reflections after carrying out the research:

  • Usually, when we think about an idea, we imagine a light bulb, that sheds light on an issue with a solution. Analyzing the cases of the two laws reveal that we need to understand the wider context, including how the policy problem is defined, and what is the public sentiment about it. The two cases show that the policy solution did not come from an isolated thought but rather, are a direct product of the context where they evolved.
  • Defining a problem can be influenced to a larger extent by existing knowledge, since it can actually be used as an explanation or a proof of its existence. Realizing, however, that these definitions evolve and mutate makes it clear that they are not objective but crafted, in the same way solutions are. Creativity and ingenuity are as relevant in the process of questioning, as in coming up with the answer.
  • In both cases, research produced within the government had a direct impact on shifting the way the problems were conceived. Furthermore, the way the problem was defined altered the political scenario. It affected which stakeholders got involved in the debate, the relationship between the government and non-governmental actors (whether cooperative or competitive), the evidence that was used and the urgency given to a topic in the public agenda.
  • Finally, the cases exemplify clearly how the public philosophy (the public sentiment) and the problem definition limit the extent to which a solution is considered appropriate and feasible. In this sense, researchers that focus on developing the solutions without fully exploring the prevailing assumptions and policy definitions are less likely to be able to participate in the policy debates.

So, to answer the question in the title of the paper, in these particular cases research was much more useful in defining the problem than providing the solution.  New research questions arise from these findings. Is this a trend? Is research more influential to define problems or to determine solutions? If so, why?  Or is it that different types of research affect different types of ideas?

In our work as researches involved in policy processes, we can also reflect on our efforts: are we aware of how our research frames problems?  If, on the other hand, we are working to find policy solutions, do we understand the complex setting where these evolve?