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Is influencing policy itself the Holy Grail?

By Linda Bullock at flickr.com under CC

By Linda Bullock at flickr.com under CC

Within current debates on what is policy influence and how to assess whether a policy research  organization has been successful in its efforts or not, there has been recently an increasing acknowledgment of the complexity of this task, and questions about how much can be really measured or is worth measuring abound.

At P&I, and especially within our online course focused in MEL of policy influence through exchange with colleagues in developing countries, we have found significant agreement and awareness on the need to expand what is enclosed under the concept of policy influence, to include, for example, short term outcomes at the level of actors (changes in attitudes, behaviors, beliefs, discourses, etc.). Often these changes are needed to then be able to affect their decisions and consequently modify or create new policies informed by the produced research. Therefore, recognition of the long way and diverse nature of influence is key in terms of assessing what has worked or has not. In fact, what might seem a win situation: a policymaker adopting a direct recommendation, might turn to be a failure when she decides to provide a new service without carefully managing its implied costs.  In this post at P&I  Ulviyya Mikayilova, Policy Unit manager at the Center for Innovations in Education (CIE), from Azerbaijan, describes this paradoxical situation and argues about the need to re-consider what policy influence really is.

Moreover, having contributed to a very specific policy change (i.e. having developed a formula to calculate a more equitative distribution of new funds targeted at expanding school hours for poorest students) is just part of the story. It is not enough to acknowledge the level of efforts, activities, strategies and relationships that a group of researchers or a research institution has deployed to inform, convince, help others develop such a change. Once the new content is there, there is again a long path to walk to contribute to turn that change into a real impact on beneficiaries of that policy. Are think tanks/policy research institutions accountable for that? Should they be? Is it enough to claim contribution to a policy change based on high quality and relevant research?

Not a minor dilemma at all. Where does the work stop? Where should the policy influence stop? Is it at the design stage, i.e. having been successful at finding an effective way for ideas emerging from research having a role in the new policy or the modification of an existing one? What happens with implementation?

Some organizations may immediately shy away from what happens after. It is the role of the State and it is within the government capacity to strive to ensure that policies are deployed in a way that they reach the intended results as much as possible. External stakeholders can never be accountable for that and should not try to influence or control that process. Furthermore, doing so would diminish the State´s capacity and accountability.

Others, on the contrary, decide to get further involved: some by monitoring and evaluating results of the policy so as to inform future efforts and become social watchdogs in the name of the intended beneficiaries. Some others become engaged in policy implementation: they get their feet in the mud, and work providing technical assistance or developing capacity of public servants so that the policy is well implemented or at least stays in the right direction. This also provides learning for future efforts and recommendations. However, what happens if they can only do this in the first pilots, or only for some level of policymakers? Do these organizations have enough resources (human and financial) to really play a role in policies of mid or large scale? Would they lose independency, autonomy, capacity to continue innovating?

Of course, complexity reveals there is no unique or right answer to these challenges. Quite the other way: it demands those playing this game to further reflect and more wisely determine what their best role would be. Answers may vary according to diverse political contexts, organizational priorities and values, existing capacity of other external stakeholders to play similar roles, etc.

Policy influence is a changing kaleidoscope and one cannot ignore the need to remain flexible and dynamic. However, one should also avoid the risk of just following the flow, responding to where demand and opportunities from others arise without re-visiting at some critical points in development its main goals, mission and vision. Some structure makes a policy research organization healthy, by conserving its identity. Some flexibility allows it to stay relevant and be valued and needed. To strike the balance is not easy at all but probably will help the institution thrive in an ever changing and increasingly complex policy world.

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