Policy and research: 'It’s the relationships stupid!'

Are donors, researchers, elected officials and policy professionals ready to create research-policy partnerships that deal with social reality

27 . 05 . 2020

Anna Numa Hopkins wrote an excellent blog recently on sharing knowledge as a social process. It took me back to 2017 when I co-edited a collection of case studies by international NGOs, academic researchers and donors. The collection explored what we called at the time the ‘social realities’ of knowledge for development. We concluded that relationships far outweigh technical capacity in their importance for engaging evidence with policy and practice. The book’s introduction ended by reflecting on the mystery of why we don’t organise our institutions and programmes in ways that recognise this.

Working on this publication led me to embark on a professional doctorate in policy research. If 20 years as a policy and research communication professional could not provide me with an answer to this mystery, maybe research could. It was not long before I was immersed in network theory and studying research policy connections in relation to the 2014 Ebola crisis. Little did I know that just around the corner was the ultimate test of science and policy partnerships. 

COVID-19 has launched the rather niche field of evidence informed policy into a mainstream topic on social media and amongst families in lockdown. This has placed a lot of attention on the politics of evidence and as Graham Room nicely puts it: ‘how facts seem to change’. However, there has been less debate around the impact of networked and individual relationships.

Perhaps one of the most fruitful avenues for exploring why it is so hard for knowledge producers and users to build better relationships lies in the study of partnerships themselves. At the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), we decided to revisit the edited collection approach to case study analysis that had been so successful. However, this time we focussed exclusively on collaborations between researchers and policy actors. In doing so we were able to explore some of the institutional, political and sociological aspects of partnership.

Diverse case studies 

Our case studies were diverse, including all African research teams engaging with their governments, international collaborations spanning International NGOs, the private sector and national governments and the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) approach to research partnerships.

We also reviewed the relevant literature on partnership theory in international development. We found that cutting across all the stories of inter-sector partnerships were some core qualities that seem to largely determine their success or failure. The most interesting of these relates to mutual agendas. It is easy to say that partners need common ground or a mutual agenda but, in reality, the partners have different types of accountability and different priorities. This is not without some justification. After all, whereas civil servants must generate politically viable options for elected officials, action researchers might be primarily concerned with community empowerment.

Rather than bemoan the fact that we are not all equal in any real sense or completely in tune with one another, it is quite empowering to acknowledge our differences. This was the approach taken by one group of Ethiopian anthropologists working with their government on the politically sensitive issue of marginalised communities of pastoralists. Their article highlights the challenges to any partnerships with government and argues that research and government have different agendas for research, as well as a lack of consensus on basic concepts.

Mutual relationships

The bounded nature of mutuality in relationships between government agencies and universities or local civil society networks and international NGOs is not just going to go away. It needs to be discussed in a non-threatening and transparent way and the tension points identified. Relationships need to be built on trust, an understanding of our differences and where the sweet spot for collaboration exists. We can write about co-production and fairness all we like and still not see research do anything to improve policy processes. The moral case for research equity goes without saying, but real-world relationships need to navigate the real differences in institutional mandates and personal responsibility.

Finally, even the healthiest partnerships that manage different agendas and power asymmetries can still be exclusionary. It may be necessary to disrupt existing networks and closed relationships that value some kinds of knowledge over others. This was the challenge we encountered when social scientists tried to be taken more seriously by the UK Government during Ebola and it is being played out again, but with far more publicity, during the current pandemic.

Networked behaviour built on relational and social factors will always push us towards cosy clubs and the poor integration of ideas that do not fit our own frames. It is not enough to simply acknowledge the social realities of evidence use. We need to do something about it.

James Georgalakis is Director of Communications and Impact at the Institute of Development Studies and the Co-Director of the ESRC DFID Impact Initiative for International Development Research

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