Knowledge brokering – what is needed to make it work?

DECI-3 Blog

Knowledge brokering – what is needed to make it work?

By Ricardo Ramirez, DECI-3.

DECI partners are immersed in evidence-informed policy making.  We have witnessed how they navigate a complex world, playing a number of different brokering roles.   The following example  summarized from an LSE Blog by Sarah Quarmby provides relevant pointers.

Sarah’s entry is based on her work with the Wales Centre for Public Policy, a knowledge brokering organization that works with the Welsh Government.  The Centre’s team see themselves as bridging the gap between academic research and policymaking.   Their process begins with the policy makers: they meet with ministers and their policy advisors to explore topics of interest for which there is a need for evidence. The Centre then conducts a review to find out what already exists on the topic.  On the basis of the review, they decide whether to do in-house research or commission it from outside.  When outsourcing, they seek the most appropriate experts; they often manage the relationship between the experts and the government. Moreover, the Centre makes sure that effective communication takes place to ensure that the research products respond to the expectations.  The Centre staff help decide how the final products will be packaged as reports, events, workshops, or structured conversations with the Welsh Government representatives.

Sarah Quarmby indicates that “In this way, we navigate the space between academic researchers and policymakers, who have long been thought of as separate communities.”  The Centre’s work is influenced by Caplan’s theory of two communities[1] that focuses on bridging the gap between academic and policymaking circles. In the Caplan article, the two groups are seen as operating within different value systems and timescales –  speaking different languages.  Policymakers live with political pressures and public scrutiny; they need timely, practical input into policy matters.  In contrast academics often focus on the longer-term, and work on theory-driven research; their pressure is to publish.  In the Caplan theory, there is therefore the need for intermediaries (i.e. facilitators) who are sympathetic towards both cultures and who can mediate between the parties to achieve outcomes of relevance to both communities.

The Centre adopted some recommendations from a 2016 study by the Alliance for Useful Evidence that reviewed how to empower policymakers to make use of evidence.  The study identified six “mechanisms” to improve evidence uptake:

  1. Building awareness and positive attitudes towards evidence-informed decision making
  2. Building agreement on policy-relevant questions and fit-for-purpose evidence
  3. Providing communication of, and access to, evidence
  4. Facilitating interactions between decision-makers and researchers
  5. Developing skills to access and make sense of evidence, and
  6. Influencing decision-making structures and processes.

For DECI, these mechanisms ring true. For instance, in the Evaluation Report of Research ICT Africa, we documented how the RIA team had provided capacity building for regulators across Africa to enhance their interest and competencies at accessing data.  This example is a useful reminder of some of the key issues that researchers need to address when also playing the role of knowledge brokers.   For us, the notion of starting where the policy makers needs are at, is consistent with the notion in Utilization-focused Evaluation of starting where the primary evaluation users are at: what they need to learn.   After all, these participatory approaches built on the principles of community development and adult education.

[1] See: Caplan, N.  1979. The two-communities theory and knowledge utilization. American Behavioral Scientist 22(3): 459-470.