How often do we stop to reflect on how we are doing what we are doing well we are doing what we do? Not frequently, certainly not in today´s hectic and fast-pace world. When it comes to policy research and development we usually jump from one project to the other, from one activity to another, trying to strengthen links between them and take valuable information and people along. At the same time also feel frustrated if we feel that we are just following the flow of the river (the flow being demand from users of what we do, funders, the latest topic in trend, organizational pressures and priorities, business models, etc.).
Thus, stopping to reflect and systematize what we have learned has become a luxury, especially for Southern-based organisations which seldom have the resources and time to invest in evaluation and knowledge management. Of course we informally and tacitly learn and apply lessons to improve how we work. However, we seldom open this learning process to others, both in terms of receiving their feedback and thoughts to co-construct new knowledge and in sharing this new knowledge with them.
Moreover, in an environment where multiple initiatives are competing for relevance and attention from a few organisations and individuals, and many bringing value in similar ways, rather than re-inventing the wheel there is a need to understand what has better worked for others (or has been very challenging or has not worked at all!) and why. A deeper understanding of others´ experiences may enable us and what doesn’t as to better focus efforts and increase value for money. Or, if you are more prone to testing and innovating, make sure you are really doing something different.
Fortunately, after six years of working on the link between research and policy through a very diverse set of activities, under the Spaces for Engagement programme conducted by CIPPEC with the support of GDNet, the time had arrived to reflect more systematically on what we have learned so as to improve our future work, as well as empower others who are walking or aspire to walk along the same path.
An output of this intense and fruitful reflection exercise is the upcoming paper “Lessons learned on promoting better links between research and policy in Latin America” which will be released very soon here. In this paper, and thanks to the collaboration of many practitioners, experts, and academics but mainly from my team, I have been able to draw 18 lessons on what has worked better, what can be enhanced in the future, and what type of activities yield what type of results and outcomes.
Also, it is important to highlight that the most valuable lessons presented in the study have derived from interaction with others. In fact, the paper is a product of continuous collective thinking: it is not what we have learned just by ourselves but what we have reflected upon, digested, discussed and discovered by talking with other colleagues and experts, asking for their feedback, encouraging them to question and challenge us, asking about what could be different or improved in the future. I believe this is the way knowledge will be co-constructed and shared more and more.
So, what did we want to achieve with the paper?
- To better reflect on what has worked and what has not in terms of the key activities of the SFE programme: research production, capacity development and networking and partnerships.
- To produce valuable evidence that can guide strategic design of future work by the diverse partners of the programme
- To share this knowledge with organisations/persons working in this field.
We can say today that we have been able to achieve 1 & 2 because we have been able to draw some important conclusions on what works better in this field and what is more challenging. We have also used this knowledge to design a new capacity building strategy.
In terms of goal 3, let´s start here sharing some of the lessons:
1) Are you frequently engaged in face to face events?
Our main lesson is that these events usually become ideal spaces for organizers to:
- Detect potential partners with some level of interest and commitment to the field
- Identify topics and materials for future CB activities
- Assess the degree of available but non-systematized knowledge within the policy research organisations that could be seized for CB
- Detect future trainees with high potential of applying what has been learned
- Improve knowledge produced by presenting it for discussion before final dissemination
- Make strategic decisions on how to invest the resources of the programme
2) Are you thinking of investing energy in South-South collaboration?
We have learned that there is indeed a clear interest in South-South collaboration in terms of systematizing knowledge and practice from similar organisations in developing countries, and supporting horizontal learning. However, this type of interaction does not flow from the very beginning; on the contrary, finding the right relationships and partners can become a nightmare if the initiative is just based on the general principle of collaboration. Thus, every effort to promote South-South collaboration should acknowledge that there are diverse interests in potential partners in terms of learning and/or training, sharing key information, developing new practices, etc. Capacity to effectively collaborate is also very diverse. Thus, a thoroughly thought strategy should be developed when trying to help Southern institutions to work together
3) Are you interested in producing or co-producing Southern-based knowledge on the link between research and policy?
Building a relevant research agenda is not that easy. We have learned that this is much more effective if you do so in collaboration with potential users of knowledge to ensure that what you produce will be demanded and used. Also, be prepared to permanently adjust your agenda to address relevant questions and real needs. For this purpose, counting with excellent researchers is not enough: you need to have good mechanisms to continuously interact with those who could use this knowledge in the real world.
When promoting new research, take into account that local production implies different strategies according to level of expertise of existing researchers to ensure relevance and quality.
For instance, working with less experienced researchers has frequently implied that we had to invest additional time and resources (and in one case we even had cancel the contract for not meeting the minimum requirements) to pre-detect potential problems, ensure consistent focus on the main questions, etc.
We have more lessons to share (and hopefully discuss with you!) in the paper. Stay tuned!