Program Leader, TTI, IDRC Canada
Q: What is your understanding of policy impact?
I understand policy impact quite broadly. In our work, we tend to assume policy means public policy, which delimits a certain domain of responsibility belonging to governments on behalf of their citizens. In this sense, impact could run the gamut from influencing how a policy issue is framed, to outlining policy choices open to government, to implementing a policy or set of policies, to helping assess the effectiveness of that policy in achieving its intended outcomes. However, I also think of impact on other social actors whose decisions and behaviours have bearing - deliberately or not - on social, political, economic and environmental issues. Here I am thinking of private firms, civil society organisations or even individuals. While there may be no recognisable “private policy”, a researcher could nevertheless consider whether their research has had any impact on the ends that a public policy would have. So for instance, working to change how companies accommodate workers’ rights in global value chains, or seeking to influence the attitudes and behaviours of men in relation to violence against women. This last example may not at first seem like “policy impact”. But I would argue that it should, because even in private spheres (like households), there are issues of public concern (like women’s rights). In the end, I try to think about how research can help constructively address socio-economic, political or environmental issues.
Q: According to the donor’s perspective what do you think could be the parameters?
It very much depends on the donor. Some donors, particularly the bilateral donors, are more concerned with downstream impacts. This is both because they are interested in change and how to bring it about (although aren’t we all?) but also because there is immense pressure on them to demonstrate value for the taxpayers monies they are spending. This has led, in my opinion, to both a narrowing of what is considered impact, while at the same time increasing expectations of research and its ability to contribute to that impact. Other donors whose accountabilities are different (such as large private foundations) can afford to take a broader view of impact. But again, this varies between them.
Q: What are the innovative examples you have observed on institutions making policy impact?
There are so many I am always reluctant to highlight one or two. Our website is filled with Stories of Influence that show how the organisations TTI supports – including CSTEP - are making a difference and contributing to positive social change. Instead of particular examples, I will mention one innovative approach, and that is research which takes into account questions of research integrity and legitimacy. This normally means seeking the active involvement of people with a stake in the research process. IDRC considers approaches that incorporate these considerations as essential to the production of quality research. And while these approaches to research may not be innovative in the sense of being new approaches conceptually, they are too often not undertaken, and yet they can have significant bearing on the likelihood that the research findings will have impact.
Q: What are the latent opportunities you see on how institutions could make policy impact?
New digital technologies have really blown open the traditional, formal policy making process. They facilitate access to ideas, accelerate expectations of citizens and consumers and facilitate responsiveness to those expectations, change the nature of production and consumption, and change social relations in many ways. I think within these changing circumstances there are interesting opportunities for influence to be explored. For instance, using these technologies for communications and outreach (this is already happening but way more could be done) using them in the research process (e.g. crowdsourcing data collection), or even taking some of these changes up as policy-relevant research topics (e.g. how to bring internet access to the more than 60% of households that, according to the International Telecommunications Union, do not currently have access, and more importantly, what could such access facilitate?).
Q: Do you have any thoughts on the nature of environment that makes it conducive for institutions/organisations to effect policy impact?
Clearly, context matters (: http://www.thinktankinitiative.org/news/context-study-linking-think-tank-performance-decisions-and-context) but as has been noted elsewhere, this is a rather uncontroversial and unhelpful statement (http://onthinktanks.org/2015/04/20/context-matters-so-what/). And how you answer this question depends very much on your organisation, where you sit within it, and what you as an individual understand context to mean. But let me offer two thoughts on your question from my previous experience as a policymaker.
The first thought is how crucial it is to acknowledge the social nature of context and the importance of personal relationships within this. Organisations operate in a social environment, by which I mean ones that are constituted by social relations of all kinds that are governed by a whole range of overlapping social norms and values. Developing cordial and professional relationships on a personal level with those individuals that organisations seek to influence is an essential element in building trust, which plays a central role in the effectiveness of communication. Quality and timely research is important, but I believe having a foundation of trust with the intended audience helps accelerate the process of influence. There are risks obviously – cooptation being the most dangerous – but are manageable. Moreover, because the social environments organisations operate within are not fixed, what organisations do, and how they do what they do, can actually help change existing social relations for the better – or even help constitute new ones. These outcomes will be complementary to whatever impact they seek through their research outputs but I would argue the power that comes from the way an organisation is socially embedded should very much be borne in mind when conceiving organisational purpose and approach. Establishing and nurturing diverse, meaningful personal networks is part and parcel of this process.
My second thought on context is the opportunity that arises from “disruptive moments.” More often than not, this would be an unanticipated event that creates an opening for good, evidence-based ideas to gain traction. The collapse of the Rana Plaza Complex in Dhaka in 2013 and the aftermath is one example. The Centre for Policy Dialogue, through its “Post-Rana Plaza Collapse Civil Society Initiative”, not only galvanized action to sustain civil society monitoring of the promises for support for the victims, it was also able to use the moment to have a broader conversation with government and private sector actors on finding better ways of ensuring workplace safety and compliance with workers’ rights in the apparels sector of Bangladesh.
These thoughts are likely very familiar to those who manage Think Tanks, so I don’t feel like this is anything new but to the extent that they could be generalised, it might be as follows: be proactive in shaping the elements of your environment that you can control, and be ready to take advantage when the influences you cannot control create openings for you.