Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Article - Leandro & Andrea

Drafting and validating your research agenda

Leandro Echt
General Coordinator of Politics & Ideas; Coordinator of the On Think Tanks School and Editor for Latin America 

Andrea Ordoñez
Associate at Politics & Ideas; Research Coordinator at Southern Voice
Researching is at the heart of what think tanks and research centres do. It is so strongly embedded in their DNA that it is often taken for granted and conducted with no clear strategy. How often do think tanks reflect on the excellence of their research agenda? How do they ensure its relevance for decision making?

Convinced of the idea that doing policy relevant research is just as important as communicating or disseminating it effectively to ensure its impact on policy, in 2015 we embarked on the development of a course to help think tanks in their efforts to design and implement policy relevant research agendas (the course is offered by the On Think Tanks School).

We started by putting forward seven principles for policy relevant research identified in existing literature and through practice:

1. Embedded in policy context
2. Internally and externally validated
3. Responds to policy questions and objectives
4. Fit for purpose and timely
5. Crafted with an analytical and policy perspective
6. Open to change and innovation: as it interacts with policy spaces and policymakers
7. Realistic about institutional capacity and funding opportunities

Let us focus on the second principle: a policy relevant research agenda should be internally and externally validated.

Once one has analysed the context and defined the main components of a research agenda (you can read more about this in this series), the challenge is: how do we actually go about validating it? How do we collect information and knowledge to create a proper analysis of the context so that we can keep policy influence in the loop? Also, how do we receive and process inputs from both internal and external stakeholders?

The process of drafting a policy relevant research agenda is an endeavour that requires both internal organisation and planning and external engagement with key stakeholders. Without connecting our initial ideas and interests with the opinions and needs of others, the research agenda might become only a wish-list, disconnected from reality, and lacking social and political relevance. The figure below summarises the key aspects of this process that will be detailed in the following subsections.

The four steps are important to ensure relevance and increase the chance of impact of think tanks research agendas. The four steps are addressed in our course. In this article we will focus on step 2 of the process, illustrated in the figure.

The policy relevant research process

The cycle of developing a research agenda includes four general steps: 1) an internal process of brainstorming and discussions, 2) engagement with relevant stakeholders 3) inclusion and arbitrage of the suggestions received and 4) communicating the agenda.

Deciding on levels and methods of engagement with stakeholders

Within the internal discussion (step 1; which can take place within each team, or institutionally) there must be an agreement about which other external stakeholders should also be engaged, including how to do it. It is advisable that various staff members are involved in defining this (though different areas could make different decisions, given that each one might have diverse expertise and connections with key stakeholders).

Possible stakeholders include other researchers and experts, former and current policymakers, and representatives of civil society, among others. But beyond their nominal labels, what is critical is to understand the roles they play in a policy process and what research can bring to their table.

But before approaching some of the most critical stakeholders about your research topics, it is important to also clarify, within the think tank, what level of engagement is desired and what is the objective of the engagement. Do you want to just gain an understanding of their priorities? Do you want to develop partnerships? What can the stakeholders expect from relating to you? Based on the work of Van de Ven on engaged scholarship, here we present four levels of engagement as an initial guideline:

• Direct or indirect consultation: In some policy contexts, think tanks cannot approach all their stakeholders for direct involvement. This is the case of settings where governments are not open to independent voices. It could also be difficult for newer think tanks to get active participation of others in the development of a research agenda. In this case, the understanding of needs and priorities might have to be done indirectly. For example, through more general interviews, an analysis of newspapers articles and interviews of policymakers or review of public documents. Of course, not having direct contact with policymakers may be a drawback. However, it is important to note that, even in the toughest environments, creative strategies can be set in place to understand the positions of other stakeholders and include them in the research agenda.

• Advisory: In this model, a think tank invites some key stakeholders to formally or informally inform the research agenda. Thus, the think tank maintains full control of the agenda and can take up, or not, the comments and suggestions from the advisors. This model is usually very detached, with occasional participations (i.e. workshops, year or bi-annual conferences, ad hoc meetings, etc.). It might not lead to long-term relationships but it might get you a wider range of perspectives from participants. In this model, the advisors are not necessarily direct beneficiaries of the research, but can guide with their expertise.

• Exchange: In this form of engagement, the stakeholders are clearly the users of the research. The engagement is different than that of the advisor because the stakeholders may be directly affected by the research. This is particularly the case of research that is evaluative or action research. In both these cases, the researcher maintains an outsider’s perspective but needs insider access to information and processes. Unlike the advisory model, in this case, the other stakeholders can be affected by the research and may also have a strong influence on the research process. Ideally, however, the researcher maintains a high level of independence from the users.

• Collaboration: In a collaborative engagement, the partner policy institution, NGO or business holds equal stakes in the project. In this case, the research is the result of an explicit negotiation of priorities and the outcomes are shared between the think tank and the partners. The role of the partners is much more intensive and may even divert the course of a project from what the think tank expected in the beginning. In the case where the partner is a public institution, the results of a project will be affected by its public positioning. On the other hand, their in-depth participation may result in greater impact since the outcomes might be more likely to be implemented or applied by the partner. This higher possibility of impact may affect the think tank’s full ownership of the research.

As it happens in multi stakeholder processes, there are no recipes. The level of engagement appropriate for a think tank will depend heavily on its contacts, capacity and ethos. It might also vary from more established areas to new ones. Whichever is the case, the think tank’s management staff must have a clear understanding of the level of engagement from each group/profile. These principles must also be transmitted as clearly as possible to the rest of the staff and relevant stakeholders. The process of deciding the level of engagement is complicated, and must also be adaptive.

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