Achieving policy impact is not just an add-on

DECI-3 Blog

Achieving policy impact is not just an add-on

By Ricardo Ramirez, DECI-3.

A November 2017 collection by Palgrave Communications provides examples of the politics of evidence-based policy making. The overview by Professor Paul Cairney (Univ. of Stirling, UK) emphasizes the importance of confirming how and why policy-makers demand information, and about the policy-making process itself.  This strategy requires skills in knowledge translation and in relationship building.  Among the articles in the collection, a paper by Megan C. Evans and Christopher Cvitanovic is featured; it is entitled “An introduction to achieving policy impact for early career researchers”.  The thrust of this article is to make the high-level literature on ‘science-policy interfaces’ accessible and tangible; a great contribution.

This featured article describes key concepts in public policy, with definitions of policy, politics and management.  The policy process is summarized as having six elements:

  • Policy actors – the stakeholders with an interest or concern, who are able to interact with the policy process, directly or indirectly;
  • Networks – relationships, linkages of trust, also referred to as sub-systems;
  • Institutions – formal and informal rules, practices, norms and traditions;
  • Ideas – beliefs and worldviews, that are held within the individuals and organizations that interact or conform the networks, and that provide inputs to the framing of policy problems
  • Events – routine and expected, as well as emergent ‘windows of opportunity’
  • Socio-economic context – the social, economic, demographic environment

The policy process is seen as having several stages:

  • Problem framing – how knowledge is gathered, issues are debated, and the policy issues framed
  • Policy formulation – how policy options are developed
  • Decision making – the policy instruments that are chosen, and the resources allocated to the process
  • Implementation – how the policy affects change on the ground
  • Monitoring and evaluation – short- and long-term results, problems that emerge, and subsequent learning and adaptation

There is a reminder in the article about the challenges of confirming impact: “…it cannot be guaranteed that efforts by scientists (or any other policy actor) to impact on policy will be successful. Most policy problems involve complex, dynamic and interconnected social, economic and environmental processes, which are highly uncertain and beyond our direct control.” (p.4)

The authors summarize a number of practical steps and tools that can help researchers determine and enhance the policy relevance of their own research:

  • Build relationships, networks, and mentors – researchers need to learn ‘where the action is’ and seek to get a seat at the table; there is also an emphasis on mentoring which requires two-way exchanges, trust and mutual respect
  • Seek internships, fellowships and other science policy opportunities – this approach is mostly realistic for young researchers; it provides an insider glimpse into the policy process, not to mention the relationships that will emerge
  • Cultivate personal attributes honesty as a foundation of the role of an impartial broker; humility as an essential ingredient of meaningful engagement, which is associated with being an active listener; openness to learning, to critique, to adaptability; and resilience as the change pathways will be challenging and require adaptation.

The above material may not come as a surprise to seasoned researchers; for others, they may provide a reminder of the skills and practices that are needed to reach beyond the traditional research role.

The authors also offer a sobering reminder that the policy process is complex, even messy. They quote the American poet John Godfrey Saxe (1869) who stated: “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know to how they are made.”