Portraying decision makers as mindless consumers does them a disservice and fails to drive a cultural change in evidence use writes Kirsty Newman, Head of the Evidence into Action Team at the UK Department of International Development. Effective demand is shaped by capacity, incentives and systems and, argues Newman, by focusing on these three factors suppliers of evidence can influence how their evidence is understood and used.
It is a real pleasure to write a blog for the Alliance for Useful Evidence. I mean, I feel as if I am amongst friends here – an entire network of fellow evidence-geeks. But while it is comforting to find myself somewhere that I can unabashedly share my love of forest plots and Bayesian statistics, there is a risk of expending effort preaching to the choir.
Suppliers of evidence, forget demand at your peril
The issue is that we are all suppliers of evidence. We love to commission new research, analyse it and communicate it. But all our efforts will be for nothing if we don’t also manage to reach out and build demand* for what we have to offer.
I think that an excessive focus on the supply, and a lack of consideration of demand, is a problem with many initiatives which aim to drive evidence-informed policy. They are often based on the assumption that if only research was more accessible and more beautifully packaged then decision makers would inevitably use it. But this interpretation rather dumbs down the role of decision makers; portraying them as mindless consumers who will be influenced by whoever has the glossiest policy brief.
For effective demand think…
I think this view does our decision makers a disservice – but I also think it will fail to drive a real change in the culture of evidence use. For an effective culture of evidence-informed policy we need to have sustained demand for research evidence – and I would suggest that effective demand requires three factors:
Decision makers need to have the knowledge and skills to find, understand and analyse research findings. They are only likely to take research seriously if they have some understanding of the scientific method and therefore understand the advantages that research findings have over beliefs or conjecture. If they don’t have this understanding, then they have no particular reason to believe what you have to say as a researcher any more than they would believe anyone who comes along claiming to be an expert.
Policy making is political! Decision makers will generally only use research findings if they have some incentive to do so. In some cases they may be driven by intrinsic motivation to use research because they understand its value – but often a push on evidence-use is required from senior leaders.
Working within DFID has opened my eyes to how elusive ‘policy making’ actually is. It is relatively difficult to pin down one process and say ‘policy is being made there’. Instead, there are myriad systems and processes which contribute to incremental changes in policy – within DFID these include the business case approval process for programmes, resource allocation decisions, country-level poverty reduction diagnostics, policy division position papers and ministerial statements. If we want evidence to feed into policy making, we cannot just expect it to happen – it needs to be built into these processes so it is mainstreamed in the work of the department.
You can act to influence demand
Reading these three factors might make you wonder what on earth you can do to influence these. I admit that working on the ‘demand’ side of evidence-informed policy making is not easy. But there are ways that you can start to make in-roads. For example:
When presenting build capacity
If you are presenting to policy makers, don’t just tell them what you found and expect them to believe you because you are an expert, attempt to build their capacity to understand research methodologies and therefore to understand why your findings are in fact valuable. This will enhance your chances of being listened to but may also leave them better placed to interrogate evidence in the future.
There’s more than one type of decision maker
In some cases you may be able to offer training sessions to decision makers – and remember that decision makers are not just those sitting in parliament – there are a wide range of individuals who make decisions on policies from employees of civil society organisation to local government staff.
Grab any opportunity to influence
In order to drive incentives to use research, take any opportunity you can to influence senior level decision makers. Do a Ben Goldacre and call out dumb politicians who lack understanding of science – but also work with allies who see the importance of this agenda and find ways to support them.
Use the media
To build capacity of society more generally to understand and use research. Politicians will start using research if they feel there is a drive from constituents to do so.
Support insiders to reform systems
Changing systems and processes within decision making organisations might not be possible for outsiders – but you can certainly talk to decision makers about their systems and help them to think through how they might be improved.
These are just some initial thoughts – I am sure there are many more ways that you could start to work on the ‘demand-side’. Don’t expect it to be easy. I can tell you from experience that getting policy makers to consider evidence systematically is challenging. But the work is important and if we evidence geeks don’t do it then who else is going to create the evidence-informed society that we dream of?
*I am aware that some people don’t like the framework of supply/demand in evidence use. I agree that it is an imperfect metaphor – but nevertheless I find it useful to separate out the functions of producing/communicating research from the functions of understanding and using research and using supply and demand to describe these two aspects seems to be the least bad option!
Kirsty Newman is Head of the Evidence into Action Team at the UK Department of International Development. She writes a blog on evidence and international development and can be found on twitter as @kirstyevidence.
Views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the Alliance for Useful Evidence. To learn more about the Alliance, our work and how you can join us (it’s free and open to all).