Louise Stoddard: A star is born?

Development Policy04 Sep 2009Louise Stoddard

The issue of how to embed research in the policy process is and has been, a key concern within the development community for some time. At the DSA yesterday Chris Whitty from the British Department for International Development (DFID) proposed a very loose design on how to go about this. As the rain hammered down on the lecture theatre roof temperatures rose inside and more than a few delegates found themselves warming up for the first time since arrival – not just because the central heating had finally been switched on.

Whitty started by outlining the standard policy processes within the British government, it’s quick, sometimes the evidence is ignored, at other times the evidence is filtered to leave only the ‘correct’ research which supports political agendas and occasionally researchers are persuaded to support particular policies which suit a policy agenda. Lots of nodding heads across the room, everyone seemed to be onboard so far.

‘We need to try and construct research before policy is made’ said Whitty. Some people are still nodding, others look like they are starting to feel a bit uneasy about what is going to come next. ‘We need to map out all the evidence that there already is which is relevant, in a way that can be accessed and give star ratings as to how useful or solid it is’ Whitty continued. The room is quiet, a few people cross their legs.

Whitty went on to explain how this new categorised research could then be accessible to decision makers and be graded according to its usefulness and relevance. The idea is still very much in its infancy and he wanted to get reaction from the DSA about how such a proposal might or might not work. He stressed that researchers need to start thinking about their audience and make the end product usable and understandable. Also we need to think about the sequence with which policy makers need to access information and which questions need to be answered first.

Just as the floor opened for comments my laptop died and I had to switch to steam powered pen and paper, but there was no way I could keep up with the stream of opinions voiced from the floor. Because this was an informal session I won’t write the names of most of those participants who expressed opinions, they are welcome to comment here in the blog, but I shall try to summarise as best I can the responses to Whitty’s proposal.

One member of the audience expressed concern that this model would simplify a much more innovative and delicate process. How can you put a value on knowledge she asked? Another participant said he wasn’t sure that DFID ever based their opinions on evidence so he broadly welcomed the proposal but criticised Whitty for relying on his background as a doctor and producing a medical model to a development issue.

Surely there must be something more dynamic than this, suggested another participant, with all the power of social networking and the World Wide Web there must be another alternative? A lady sat in the middle of the room then asked a key question ‘rather than creating this system, shouldn’t we be looking at changing how the policy process works and create space for research and time within it?’ I was pleased someone bought this up, it might sound idealistic but is it really so unthinkable that a policy process can change to accommodate research? There was another question burning in my mind at this point. Hands up all around the room, I hoped someone would ask what I was thinking.

Next was a gentleman concerned about the interpretation of research, who would set the standard? ‘With respect, in my experience the most ignorant people are usually the most senior’ he said. ‘These are the people making decisions not reading journals, how do we get to these people?’ Whitty defended himself saying that he and his colleagues frequently read journals. The conversation then shifts to the targeting of individuals within policy processes and the importance of building relationships with those supporting the most senior.

Robert Chambers then stood up and had to shout over the drumming rain, ‘we need to think about representative stories’ he says ‘we could for example think about creating illustrations based on the conclusions of final evidence’ Whitty then took over the conversation ‘these are not stupid people who need to be told bed time stories, these are serious professionals’. Of course he was being deliberately antagonistic, but I don’t know how constructive that was. Still no one had asked my question, so it was time to start waving my hand about in the air.

More discussion came about researchers asking the right questions in their work, they need to talk to policy makers first. Finally I go to ask my question. How would this be done? What kind of programme would be set up? Would it be within DFID or outside? Whilst this might only be blue sky thinking right now, shouldn’t we look at the existing information services that we have and learn some lessons about the kinds of people who might be collecting this research and the relationship they will have with researchers and academics? Perhaps most importantly – it’s all very well setting up this project, which clearly would have some positive impact, but what is the long term commitment from DFID to keep it going?

I didn’t get an answer, Whitty took another question and the conversation moved on. Perhaps at the moment no one knows about the ‘how’ because this idea is still very much an ‘idea’. However both policy makers and academics alike are reliant on development information workers, they are the bridge that holds up the research traffic to government offices and to have a discussion about setting up a new information service without looking at the current models we have and learning the lessons from how they work would, in my view, be a mistake. I would very much welcome comments and opinions on this session as I am sure that my pen and paper note taking does not do justice to the diversity of opinions in the room.