Perspectives on the “problem” of evidence-based policymaking

Temba Masiela and Anil Kanjee

Temba Masiela and Anil Kanjee

A panel discussion explored the problems around information and knowledge flows, processes and structures that inhibit use of research in policy and practice.The discussion covered a range of perspectives on evidence-based policymaking. Out of this, I found three that resonated throughout the presentations. These were: public policy processes as a narrative; policy and politics; and what public policy processes are [not]:

Public policy processes as a narrative

A public policy process is a story with particular actors, plot, perspectives, etc. It is about the authoritative allocation of values and resources; it is contested and highlights issues of power, decision-making, and problem solving.

It’s about good and bad stories around: why the policy is important? Who benefits? How should it be done? Who bears the consequences, the costs? The story has a beginning, middle and ending: when we analyse policy we don’t think about the ending, whether happy or sad… also although we recognise that it’s a chaotic process, we analyse it as if it were linear. What’s the moral – what lessons can we learn? Is it a call to action, about co-production of knowledge and therefore interactive, iterative? The story also has history.

Some policy narratives are constantly changing, e.g. DFID – sustainable livelihoods approach -> natural resource development -> climate change: although the content is largely the same, the framing can prevent the ‘outside world’ from engaging with the narratives.

Politics and policy (Both big ‘P’ and small ‘p’ of politics)

We need better ‘understanding about the impediments of why we are willing but not always able’

Policymaking is ‘a bit of a dirty business’

– Both quotes by Mastoera Sadan

Policy is about making tough decisions: we tend to leave out the story about the politics i.e. the extent it’s fought over, the rules, incentives and disincentives, role of institutions, adjudication and enforcement; all policy is about legitimation [sic] – to what extent does it resonate with the people it’s intended for (is it trustworthy, credible and believable)?

Policy is about negotiation: art of the possible, art of politics, what’s institutionally practicable: ‘mucky and robust negotiations’ – we want government to solve problems in simplest way, which just isn’t possible.

Research is still quite low on the list of things that influence policymaking. Sometimes there’s a better rationale for policy than the logical approach e.g. in an election period certain regimes will not take on board certain themes but at other times will embrace them, e.g. seed policy in Malawi. Policy processes made ‘on the fly’; haphazard policy formulation can happen when a politician is at a rally, in a communication arena, in response to particular coalitions, balance of forces, or the person that happens to be in front of the policymaker at a particular time.

What is ‘pro-poor’ research [not]?

There’s a false distinction between ‘pro-poor evidence informed research’ and activism: you can’t be ‘pro-’ anything if your scholarship isn’t socially engaged scholarship: ‘the idea that scholarship is limited to the production of peer-reviewed papers in ‘acceptable’ academic journals is a huge limitation in the production of pro-poor evidence informed policy’ (Dr Enver Motala)

Quantitative or qualitative models: social science researchers have ‘physics envy’ but to ‘subject [social phenomena] to the law of quantum mechanics is an absurd proposition’. An enquiry about pro-poor is about power relations in society rather than the interaction between particles

Interesting questions arising during the discussion:

About the narrative framework of policy:

– When do we begin to engage with policy failure?

– What happens when the evidence doesn’t fit into policy narratives and don’t agree with one another?

Policy process as a political process:

– Is the political part hindering policy processes? If so, do research brokers have a role to play in depoliticising policy processes?

About concepts:

– What does the objectification of ‘poor’ people and communities mean about the nature of social science research?

Freida McCormack, IDS

The Session Panel:

  • Dr Temba Masilela, Executive Director, Policy analysis and Capacity Enhancement Unit, HSRC
  • Megan Lloyd Laney, Communications Advisor, DFID
  • Mastoera Sadan, Senior Policy Analyst, Social Sector, Policy Coordination and Advisory Services, the Presidency South Africa
  • Dr Enver Motala, HSCRC Council Member and Independent Consultant

Chair: Dr Anil Kanjee, Executive Director, Centre for Education Quality Improvement, HSRC

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2 Responses to Perspectives on the “problem” of evidence-based policymaking

  1. […] Listen to Megan Lloyd Laney’s 12 minute presentation Read the blog of the session […]

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