The politics of capacity building for greater research-policy linkages – a reflection on Lessons Learned by the SFE programme

[Editor’s note: This post was written by Catherine Fisher and it reflects on the paper ‘Lessons Learned’ by Vanesa Weyrauch. Catherine is an independent consultant on capacity development and learning processes in international development.]

The paper ‘Lessons learned on promoting better links between research and policy in Latin America‘ shares the results of the authors’ thoughtful and critical reflection the six year Spaces for Engagement programme intended to build capacity for greater research-policy linkages. There is a lot in this paper of interest, particularly to those seeking to design similar capacity development programmes, as it outlines in detail the thinking behind the design of interventions, shares the challenges in their implementation and identifies practical lessons.

catherine fisherI will get my major issue with this paper out of the way, before moving onto some of the many interesting points it contains.  I was disappointed to find little in the paper that spoke to its title and told me whether the programme had contributed to any changes in the links between research and policy in Latin America, or indeed the other continents to which this prolific programme extended.   The authors acknowledge that their evaluations mainly focussed on the quality of the intervention rather than any subsequent changes that resulted, whether in terms of participants’ knowledge, behaviours and attitudes or broader outcome changes.   However, this limits the amount that can be said about the effectiveness of any of the capacity development activities described on promoting greater use of research in policy processes.

That said, there is much food for thought in the paper. I share a few points that caught my eye.

Building capacity by building an alternative knowledge base
A core belief of the Spaces for Engagement programme was that “the general framework for analysing the link between research and policy came from a Northern way of conceptualizing and organizing these issues. This insight drove efforts to build a body of Southern generated knowledge around research to policy linkages and to establish this as an ongoing area of study. It is great to see this as part of a capacity building programme as it assumes a more systemic understanding of capacity than one based merely on skills.   The challenges and lessons learned from trying to establish this programme of work are well documented. Sadly the paper does not reflect on its successes, whether useful new insights were generated from the research, or whether this is a fruitful area of investment for people trying to strengthen research-policy connections.

Building capacity through co-production of knowledge
This idea of capacity emerging through creation of new knowledge reappears in Lesson 9.  It stresses the importance of involving a wide range of individuals to enable “the co-production of knowledge that is relevant and useful, fosters a deep understanding of the complexity of applying knowledge on the field”. Specific learning points to the importance of combining “global views and debates with regional and local experiences”.  The paper suggests that the paper enabled this through using a range of methods that reinforce each other – an important lesson for designers of other programmes.

Value of horizontal exchange between participants to reinforce other activities
An example of combining multiple approaches to capacity building came in response to participant demands for “more horizontal exchange of knowledge”. The programme facilitated peer exchange visits to follow up from more conventional training events and supported communication of results. This was felt to be very fruitful.   One detailed lesson was that exchanges enabled participants to understand the necessary “strategies or institutional changes to implement in order to strength­en policy influence”. This kind of embedded learning from peers might be a way of going beyond theoretical individual learning to practical organisational change. Whether this exchange also went beyond issues of practical implementation to challenge western models of policy influence was not mentioned.

Stronger relationships as both means and end
The reflection paper considers whether capacity building is a means or an end, before concluding that it is both.  The authors argue that the spaces for engagement that were created through the capacity building activities served to strengthen relationships between policy research institutes and, in some cases, between researchers and policy actors themselves. The importance of relationships is widely understood to be essential both to organisational capacity (see ECPDM 5 C’s model) and to greater research to policy linkages (see for example Walter, Nutley and  Davies). I would agree with the authors that facilitating the development of stronger relationships is both a capacity building intervention and outcome. If traditional capacity building approaches such as training are the best entry point for achieving this, so be it!

Is Public Policy Analysis the basis for any capacity building work in this area?

Many of the lessons identified in the capacity building section of the paper are quite detailed covering areas such as incentives, pedagogy, participant selection, being demand driven. While a useful contribution to the field, the insights are quite broadly applicable. I was hoping to find more about the issues of undertaking capacity building specifically intended to improve links between research and policy.

As such I was interested by a comment by one of the capacity building board that any capacity building in this area should be underpinned by a mastery of the methodology of Public Policy Analysis. I would instinctively share this position as I have often been struck by the separation between efforts to promote greater research uptake, evidence informed policy etc, and broader debates around governance, politics and public administration (although I would argue there are other schools of thought is important to understand such as behaviour change and social marketing). At its most extreme, this apolitical approach to evidence informed policy can be seen in a tendency to focus on particular communication products such as the ubiquitous policy brief as a route to (or proxy for?) policy influence, regardless of political context. This communication tools approach was certainly not the position taken by SFE programme – however I would have liked to have hear more about how their understanding of public policy shaped the design of capacity building activities – not just the content of their programmes but the kinds of activities they undertook.

Looking to the future
In this brief discussion I have focussed on the more political aspects of the paper, perhaps to the detriment of the valuable practical insights which are its core. This is because I see capacity development as a political process that is magnified when it aims to shape how political policy processes take place. In focussing on the practical lessons in this paper, I suspect the authors and other contributors left out more, possibly deeper, and more political insights that they gained through the course of the Spaces for Engagement programme.   I hope that their future work in this area will build on these insights as well as the practical ones. Finally, I hope any future capacity development work in this area, by the authors or others who learn from them, will include greater emphasis on evaluating outcomes on policy processes and the attitudes and behaviours of the actors involved in them!