Evidence to policy: bridging gaps and reducing divides

12 June 2012

Evidence-based policymaking is important but not always straightforward in practice. The complex reality of policymakingprocesses means that the availability of high quality research is a necessary, but not sufficient, ingredient for evidence informed policy.

At the recent 12th Annual Colloquium of the Campbell Collaboration, all the vibrant and in-depth discussions conveyed one clear message: we need to get better at bridging the gap between research and policy. Over 150 researchers and policymakers gathered in Copenhagen for the three-day event, which combined training in systematic review methods with plenary sessions focusing on policy and practice. The takeaway messages from the sessions offer a clear and sharp call to action for researchers.

Produce relevant and timely research

As researchers, we often focus too much on the supply side – on producing high quality and academically stimulating research. But producing relevant research means a greater focus on the demand side – working closely with commissioners and users of research to ensure that our output meets their needs.

For instance, Ruth Stewart and colleagues at the newly established Johannesburg Centre of the Collaboration for Environmental Evidence are working towards addressing the demand side and setting research priorities. Her team is running a consultation exercise involving a range of governmental and non-governmental stakeholders across sub-Saharan Africa. This exercise will be followed by country-specific workshops focusing on context specific priorities.  3ie’s Policy Window similarly uses upfront user engagement in identifying topics for primary studies.

Know the rules of the political game

Researchers need to be aware of the political narrative and ensure that evidence reaches policymakers when they are most receptive. According to Baroness Estelle Morris, former Secretary of State for Education and skills in the UK Parliament, evidence is most useful and influential when the political narrative is still being formed or reviewed rather than once a political stance is taken or campaign rolled out.

In fields in which policy is highly politicised, we need to be mindful of the challenge of evidence prompting a political U-turn. We also need to be aware of how research findings are portrayed in the media. Careless criticism of the political agenda may damage the relationship between a researcher and a politician. When bridges are burned, even high quality evidence can end up abandoned on the sidewalk.

Translate and institutionalise knowledge

Another key message of the colloquium was that we need to spend more time and resources on evidence translation.  We spend a lot of time perfecting the methodologies of our research. But we should also place greater emphasis on finding ways to get evidence to feed into policy, meaning getting better at communicating research using formats accessible to users. User friendly summaries and policy briefs are perhaps used most frequently, but there is a need to go a step further.  We need to stop thinking about knowledge translation as being just about packaging of information and move towards institutionalisingthe use of evidence in organisations and systems.

There are some valuable lessons to be learnt from sectors that have a longer tradition of research for evidence based policy than the international development sector. The Evidence-Based Policing Matrix is an example of an innovative knowledge translation tool used in crime and justice. Developed by Dr. Cynthia Lum and colleagues, the matrix provides a visual representation of the evidence of the effectiveness of a range of policing interventions.  The clusters of studies are visually represented as ‘realms of effectiveness’ that allow us to make policy related generalisations.

The team has further developed an approach to implement this evidence tool in practice through the Matrix demonstration project which works with police agencies. This matrix translates and institutionalizes research findings for the day to day practice of police agencies.

At 3ie, we are also working on developing similar knowledge translation tools with our Evidence Gap Maps. 3ie’s Gap Maps graphically consolidate what we know about ‘what works’ in particular sectors by drawing out evidence from systematic reviews and impact evaluations.

Engage with a broader range of evidence

In line with the need to conduct more policy-relevant research, there appeared to be an increasing acceptance of the need to engage with broader types of evidence, including a range of quasi-experimental study designs for evaluating intervention effectiveness, as well as qualitative evidence.

Professor Mike Saini from the University of Toronto, highlighted how qualitative synthesis could potentially answer a different (and often complementary) set of questions than quantitative syntheses of effectiveness. Such an approach starts with the research question and adopts the method(s) which is best suited for answering it.

Qualitative evidence can, for instance, help us better understand issues related to process and implementation of complex interventions. It can also improve our understanding of barriers and facilitators of intervention effectiveness.

At 3ie we are working hard to ensure we fund and conduct research that is both high quality, relevant, accessible and timely. To achieve this ambitious goal, we are increasingly working with our constituency of policymakers and practitioners to identify research priorities and to develop effective dissemination and policy-influence plans. The work of our colleagues from the Campbell Collaboration and other organisations will surely be an inspiration for 3ie’s work.

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Evidence Matters is 3ie’s blog. It primarily features contributions from staff and board members. Guest blogs are by invitation.

3ie publishes blogs in the form received from the authors. Any errors or omissions are the sole responsibility of the authors. Views expressed are their own and do not represent the opinions of 3ie, its board of commissioners or supporters.