‘Don’t just tell me what to do, come and help me do it!’ said an Indian government official to a researcher bearing results from studies into effective aid programmes. His response is salutary: there is much work now on increasing the use of evidence in public policy, so we need to understand what policymakers actually need and want, and what will help them be more evidence-driven. For foundations there is a clear message: it isn’t enough just to fund research. You have to make sure it reaches the relevant policymakers and in a form that is useful to them.
Over ten years, Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) has run more than 350 studies in 51 countries to find what works in alleviating poverty. We have had some success in influencing policies of governments, NGOs, foundations and others. Here’s what we have found.
The basic lesson is that there is often a disconnect between the people who produce evidence and those who use it. Though they may share a goal, the evidence ‘producers’ (researchers and academics) often work on a different timescale and in different technical language from the ‘users’ (government officials and practitioners in NGOs, foundations, companies and elsewhere). Even within the same organization, they may not be used to dealing with each other.
Getting evidence into policy requires much more than producing evidence and publishing it. Rather, ‘diffusion [of ideas] is essentially a social process through which people talking to people spread an innovation’, said Everett Rogers, who studied the process (and who coined the term ‘early adopter’). This involves behavioural change, and we have found that it’s at least as difficult as the research itself. Hence IPA works with both producers and users of evidence, facilitating, translating and supporting.
We use a structure articulated by Professor Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago, who developed behavioural economics. He wrote in the New York Times (7 July 2012) of his visits to the UK Government’s Behavioural Insights Team, which he advises:
‘… I make the rounds of government. We usually meet with a minister and some senior staff. In these meetings, I have found myself proposing two guidelines so often that they have come to be team mantras: 1) You can’t make evidence-based policy decisions without evidence. 2) If you want to encourage some activity, make it easy.’
IPA follows those guidelines. In fact, the second starts before the first: we find it useful to engage policymakers and practitioners right at the start, making a three-stage process.
First, work out what questions policymakers want answered
We are keen to solve problems that somebody actually has, and which they have budget, energy and permission to solve. These may not be the questions that interest researchers or campaigners or the press, but they are the problems where evidence is likely to make a difference. This can be seen as market research, since policymakers are the customers for the evidence.
For example, IPA’s work in Ghana led to conversations with the government which showed that they were concerned about low educational attainment, and potentially interested in solutions from elsewhere that might work. We are sometimes a ‘match-maker’ between policymakers with questions and researchers interested in answering them. Key to building these relationships is having a permanent presence in-country (IPA has offices in 12 countries).