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When Academics and Policymakers mix – Reflections from the Philippines

To what extent do academics and policymakers interact with each other and what is the byproduct of this interaction has always been a fascination in public policy literature.

I have been teaching public policy to graduate students of Political Science since 2009 and my frustration of them being too idealistic has been kept at bay ever since I started linking them with local policy makers – particularly mayors and their department heads – in the course of their studies.

Prior to being a full-time academic, I have been involved with local development work for Ateneo de Manila University’s Center for Educational Development since 1997.  Development work in this side of the world can be frustrating, especially when policy makers ‘measure’ programs in terms of outputs (that are useful during elections) rather than outcomes.  It has been 16 years since, and while the challenges of local policy making remain, there were some good things that can be shared when academics and policy makers collide.

Reflecting on this experience, I list down five propositions that are neither exhaustive nor exclusive, but worth considering.

  1. Look for champions.  Policy makers are ultimately politicians who needed to get re-elected, hence they need to report very simple numbers that ordinary people can relate to.  This can be very frustrating especially to those who value research-based policymaking (and the idea of rational choice). However, instead of excluding politicians from the work, my boss, Fr. Ben Nebres, S.J. (who was then the University president) encouraged us to give politicians ‘the benefit of the doubt’. For him, to generalize that all politicians are self-serving policy makers can limit the way development workers operationalize engagement on the ground.  Hence, centers like ours began looking for ‘champions’ among mayors and started working with them and their team. Champions are not the most perfect politicians, but rather those who provided us with the opportunity to do things differently – basically, take a more ‘scientific’ approach to understanding their town’s social, political and economic conditions and hopefully make sound recommendations based on reliable data.
  1. EIPM as an introduction to EBPM.  As we progressed with our partnership with our champions, they began to be more open to the idea of using facts that are reliable. What emerged was technically still not ‘evidence-based policy making’ in the strictest sense, but EIPM or ‘evidence-informed policy making’ (a term I was introduced to only a year ago while attending a workshop in Kuala Lumpur conducted by the International Network for the Advancement of Scientific Publications). EIPM proved to be a practical way to introduce policy makers to the idea of seeking reliable sources to generate evidence for policymaking purposes.  Key in this engagement phase is to develop among champions the habit of seeking reliable information beyond what their political advisers tell them. And when they become frustrated about not getting data, usually policymakers push for this “lack of/ inaccessibility of data” to be addressed concretely. Different sub-partnerships may evolve during this phase, from conducting policy research for policymaking purposes to placing student interns as data collection assistants within the municipality’s various programs and projects.
  1. SMART may sometimes not be smart… at first.  One of the favorite descriptions of an ideal objective/plan/policy is SMART – specific, measureable, achievable, relevant and time-oriented. Policy makers go through the motion of SMART, but most of them do so only in paper (as they usually say: “for compliance only”).  For them, day-to-day management is always on survival mode, especially in towns where local development indicators remain alarmingly low.  At this level of development, policymaking by necessity tends to be less scientifically calculated and more instinctive and gut-feel (or street-smart!). The goal, the mayors would say, is to stay alive and stay afloat first. Thus, keeping initial policy research and recommendations straightforward and simple at first might be a better way to be heard rather than push for something that looks and sounds complicated.  When the local government partner is no longer in survival mode, then lobbying for ‘a better ship’ can be considered.
  1. Academic institutions will always be valued for their political neutrality.  Mayors value the partnership with our university not because we have tons of resources but because we value our neutrality. Of course, it helps that our country’s current president was a graduate of our university (and so is our country’s national hero Jose Rizal). I believe however that a university’s brand in any country is unparalleled in terms of integrity and so we must use this as our capital whenever we enter into an agreement with local government partners, and other policy makers.  Our students are taught to be respectful and sensitive to the realities of policymakers. But they are also reminded of their responsibility to the knowledge community. Their internships and policy papers should always reflect integrity and academic honesty, more than political correctness or partisanship.
  1. Break it down.  Key to policy lobbying then is to break down the engagement into phases.  In the parlance of development psychology, the ability of human beings to learn is influenced by their cognitive capabilities that evolve as they grow.  Policymaking is a bit like learning. Some policymakers are only ready to absorb simple information (which may not be very ‘scientific’ based on our standards as policy advocates and researchers). But there will be others who are more than happy to engage in EIPM or even EBPM.  The trick is to understand each policymaker’s ‘ability to learn’ which is usually associated with the type of community they lead.  If they lead a more progressive town, then chances are they have the manpower and resources to re-align for EBPM.  Having said this, policymakers who are in a crisis mode all the time should not be least prioritized.  In fact, when we started working with most of our champions, their towns were in critical situations (e.g. high levels of poverty, unemployment, bad social indicators).  So we started with the most ‘unscientific’ form of policymaking: serve their perceived needs, since we felt it was critical for us to start the work immediately – no questions asked.  The only thing that we asked from our partner was for them to provide the necessary counterpart funding (in the form of stipend, lodging and/or transportation to trainers for example) as a gauge of their commitment to the partnership.  As the partnership progressed, we deliberately included bits and pieces of policy research activities until such time that they were used to the idea of data-informed policy making.

Over the years, partnerships between many of the university’s development centers and local politicians widened as well as deepened. As more towns engaged with academia, some of the longer-standing partnerships began accepting our students – initially as summer interns, and then eventually as researchers linked to an academic subject. On the other side of the fence, there were a couple of us from the development centers who eventually slid to the academic units. This gave us the opportunity to link academic resources (such as the service learning component of our classes) to the larger needs of our partner communities. Do they (politicians) listen to us (the academics)? I believe they do.  When other local government units suddenly ask if they could also partner with the university, then you know that good work spreads like wild fire.