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What are we missing when trying to develop policy makers capacities to use evidence?

[Editor’s note: This post is the third of a series produced by Vanesa Weyrauch and Leandro Echt from Politics&Ideas to share what we learn through the development and conduction of an online course targeted to policymakers in Latin America on the use of research in policy.]

 

As part of the development of an online course at P&I, we have been reviewing a broad set of available resources (papers, toolkits, books) and programmes addressing how to enhance current capacity of policymakers to contribute to a vivid culture of using evidence in policymaking in developing countries. This post will share some preliminary findings emerging from this exercise

First, the big majority of the resources and programmes are written or delivered by Northern researchers, think tanks, universities and donors. Too little is produced in developing countries. For instance, beyond some isolated efforts, it is extremely difficult to find resources in Spanish (very important in terms of our course because it will address Latin American policy makers).

Another finding has to do with the low level of involvement of governments or policy makers in the design of the programmes or in the production of the materials. Most of the resources and curricula are written or coordinated by researchers or practitioners in our field. While governments are sometimes the sponsors of those programmes, usually they are not the designers of the initiative. This low involvement of governments may have an impact in terms of the buy in of the efforts to develop capacities of policy makers as well as the degree in which they talk to the very real challenges and priorities of this group.

Regarding the content, most of the programmes focused on the role of evidence in policy making and the challenges that policy makers face when trying to use evidence in their practices. However, not so much is addressed in terms of concrete competencies to be developed by participants or specific tools and processes to incorporate evidence in the policy design (the Assessing the Strength of Evidence toolkit by DFID is a good exception to this since it provides concrete processes and tools that policy makers can use to this purpose).

For the same reason, these programmes and resources seldom include on ground experience in trying to incorporate evidence in policy makers’ daily practices. Involving this type of experience will help to approach the objectives of capacity building activities in a more realistic way. Moreover, that experience should be contextualize in the political economy implied in the policy making process.

Thus, improving policy makers capacities to use evidence should not be approached dogmatically, but rather in a context-specific way. However, this is not an easy task within a course that deals with participants coming from different contexts. The type of exercises promoting within the course could be a good strategy to ensure a meaningful use of the content in participants’ realities (we’ll come back to it below).

Finally, most of the examples on the use of evidence in policy making come from the health and agricultural sectors. These examples assume that evidence comes preferably from experimental or quasi experimental initiatives. More challenging is to find examples addressing other social policies.

These are the main issues arising from a preliminary review of existing and available resources. As a matter of fact, our course and our general approach to the use of evidence in policy making in developing countries is and has been shaped by these previous efforts. Most of these initiatives have shed light in how policies can be improved with evidence.

However, our bet now is to continuously promote  co production of knowledge with those who have the real on the ground experience and a deep understanding of the political economy shaping policy making processes. We also seek to include in the programme concrete tools to incorporate evidence in specific policy decisions.

Some strategies that we are developing to achieve our objectives and deal with the above stated challenges are:

Creating a Strategy Content Group, composed by eight former or current senior policymakers from different countries in Latin America (Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay) with a significant academic or research background. Their participation will provide several benefits: it will ensure that the course is attractive to mid-level policymakers to take part in it, it will guarantee that the content is relevant, and most importantly it will provide an opportunity for the high-level policymakers’ knowledge to be systematized and passed on, rather than lost.

Conducting a survey intended for policy makers to contribute with ideas on what they would like to address in a course focusing on supporting mid-level policymakers interested in promoting a vivid culture of using evidence in policymaking. We are very interested in better incorporating their perspective in the course. In the following weeks we will share the main results of this survey.

Developing concrete exercises in which participants can approach the contents of the course while considering their unique realities and encouraging the collective work around those exercises (with colleagues of same policy agencies), will contribute to make the course more meaningful to the participants’ contexts.

More reflections will be shared along this initiative of delivering an online course to improve policy makers´ capacities to use evidence in Latin America. Meanwhile, and as we said in our first post, we welcome any good ideas on how to think about capacity development on this topic for policymakers, including literature, successful and not that successful experiences, and food for thought!

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