Evidence intermediary organisations – what should their future be?

Moving beyond a definitional morass

25 . 09 . 2023

Whether they be called Evidence Institutes, What Works Centres, Policy Labs, Clearing Houses, there has been a remarkable growth in evidence intermediaries bridging research with policy and practice. A recent study found over 300 institutions in 31 countries focused on bridging research with policy. The 2022 Global Commission on Evidence has called for yet more evidence intermediaries to ‘fill the gaps left by the government’.

Before we add new bodies, we thought it important to look at what we already have so we can build on existing platforms and infrastructure, and do more to share learning, and build more inclusive evidence. We have set this out in our latest report, Evidence Intermediary Organisations: Moving beyond a definitional morass for Transforming Evidence.

The report is a review of the literature and takes into account our series of seminars. But it is also personal: we bring our own experience from over three decades of providing leadership and advice for over 20 different evidence intermediary organisations and networks in Australia, Canada, France, UK and US (Breckon & Boaz, 2023). We include our experience from every stage of the lifecycle of an evidence intermediary body, including scoping, commissioning, leading, advising, sustaining, researching, and evaluating new, existing, or closed organisations.

In the UK, we had a merger of two of the then nine What Works Centres: the Early Intervention Foundation and the What Works Children’s Social Care. They have now created a single body Foundations, the What Works Centre for Children & Families, as discussed in this podcast by Jo Casebourne. 

We could do with more mergers like this, to reduce duplication. At a Transforming Evidence roundtable with leaders of intermediary organisations in 2022, we heard frustrations regarding ‘territoriality’ and ‘land grabbing’, with some intermediaries monopolising sectors, and intense competition for limited funding. We need to ‘collaborate more’, according to Rose Oronje at the African Institute for Development Policy, Kenya who spoke at our event ‘So there isn't duplication and lack of coherence’.

For those centres that are well established, we need to learn more from each other. Too many discussions on this topic suffers from a ‘Groundhog Day’, covering old ground, without moving the conversation forward.Even the labels are confusing. The term ‘broker’ is often used in the health literature, whilst ‘intermediary’ is used in education, or ‘boundary spanner’ in the environmental literature, according to one systematic review of terminology. We found least twelve different labels, with confusing acronyms such as KBIs, KBOs, and RBOs – set out in table below. This matters as separate terminologies adds to the inability to learn from each other.

Finally, there is potential for intermediary organisations to be more inclusive. We could do more to work with other actors in civil society and outside of central government, and look at topics that are at the centre of everyday life, such as how families can spend money on effective products and services. The continued societal impact of Campaigns such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter demand answers by intermediaries about the diversity of their evidence and engagement.

One means to help with this is for intermediaries to invite people with more diverse backgrounds into evidence intermediary panels, when drafting guidance, synthesis or recommendations. There are a range of different platforms, including ‘mini-publics’ like citizen juries and Delphi panels. However, when engaging with people with lived experience of an issue, it must not be tokenistic, but authentic - and peoples’ time paid for.

More evidence intermediary organisations may be welcome but we must work with what we have – and find better ways to share and evaluate what we do know, collaborate with existing partners, be more inclusive and move away from what has been described as a rudderless mass of activity.

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