Rethinking ideas – more than just policy solutions

One of the areas of interest of our research agenda are ideas. I agree, conceptualizing ideas, and exploring where they come from, how they evolve, and who appropriates them is essential to understanding how research can influence policy.

But what are ideas?  When we think about ideas, we usually picture the bright solution to a development problem. In general, we love ideas: conditional cash transfer programs, voluntary governance initiatives, innovative ICT programs and others are among those things that we consider ideas in the context of policy reform. Jal Mehta (in the book Ideas and Politics in Social Science Research), however, does a good job portraying how ideas go beyond the solutions to public problems. He suggests three types of ideas in the policy process:

Policy solutions are probably the most common conception of what an idea is. These are the innovations created or imported to solve a given problem. Where do these solutions come from? Are they inspired by research or creativity? Are they imported from a different country or setting? Who comes up with these ideas? It is very likely that pinpointing answers for these questions can be very complex, and that there is no clear cut answer for them. Furthermore, research is but one ingredient for these solutions that require creativity and audacity.

Problem definition is the second type of ideas. The way in which problems are defined is critical to understanding the solutions that are put forward. This concept is closely related to that of framing, since the way a problem is stated, the actors that are blamed for it and those that are perceived as the ones who should solve it, determine the policy solution set forward. Research, data and concepts are very useful in this process, and are used among many actors in policy debates to shift the definition of the problem at hand. There is no one definition of a policy problem. Probably there are as many problem definitions as there are solutions.

Public philosophy (zeitgeist) refers to those broad conceptions held within groups, parties, or societies as a whole. Assumptions, values and circumstances affect this public philosophy. These concepts may be seen as the limits of the policy field, since within them policy problems must be defined and solved. Furthermore, public philosophies can be seen as the narratives that link politicians, policy-makers and the wider public.

Ideas are starting to cause a debate. Are researchers supposed to be coming up with grandiose ideas or should they keep focusing on doing good quality research? It seems to me that this debate is based on the concept that ideas are only those that provide policy solutions, as described before. In turn, this misconception may limit the way researchers look at their work and the interaction with the wider policy scenario. Furthermore, thinking of ideas only as solutions has the weakness of not allowing us to wonder whether we are tackling the right issue and even if this is relevant and feasible for society. It may also appear as if policy solutions are neutral when in reality they are largely determined by the public philosophy and the problem definition.

Our research agenda sets forward questions about ideas in this wider context. It acknowledges that ideas are not only policy solutions, that they are not value free, and that they evolve and transform in accordance to the political scenarios.  Through cases from the global south we will explore the particularities of ideas in these settings, and the implications for policy influence.