Top Tips from APRA’s Policy friends

During APRA’s recent annual meeting in Naivasha from 2-6 December 2019, a panel of distinguished policy voices made up of representatives from Department for International Development (DFID), African Union (AU), Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), Tegemeo Institute, Agricultural Non-State Actors Forum (ANSAF), and independent consultants shared their perspectives and offered advice on how to guarantee the relevance, effectiveness and sustainability of APRA findings in the policy space.   This blog shares some of the key advice for researchers that emerged from this conversation. 

Policy is political

Policy makers are well informed.  They understand upcoming challenges, the results they aim towards.  They want evidence and examples of what does and doesn’t work.  Unpopular policies lose votes so they need tested solutions that will deliver progress. However, policy can fall into the trap of not having clear delivery mechanisms, so evidence on issues around implementation of policy can be more useful than further analysis of a problem.  Research should provide evidence based support to identify implementation best practices and provide guidance on mechanisms that provide solutions.   In multi-party politics, manifestos are a powerful statement of intent that create opportunities for evidence that provides insights on how to effectively deliver on these promises. 

Find a ‘hook’ to get traction

Understand your network and the key players and familiarise yourself with their priorities and drivers.   Messages need to be clear and compelling and resonate with the existing institutional narrative if they are to gain traction across different teams and organisational structures. Evidence needs to highlight an issue, then provide insights over what can be done to bring about change. For example, DFID wants to know how it should invest to deliver results – there has to be a poverty reduction angle.  The question is whether commercial agriculture is the best investment to make people more resilient, and what are the effects on poverty alleviation. For the AU, their mandate is to implement and coordinate policy.  Therefore, using organisational language can make it easier to demonstrate how evidence aligns with the organisational mandate. 

Ask the right questions

Engage with potential users before conducting research in order to understand their demand for evidence.  Research that is not relevant to the agenda is often redundant.  A co-generated research agenda that identifies specific questions to answer can build a stronger sense of engagement and ownership of results.  This helps to ensure that research is useful, increasing its effectiveness and impact.   Although, there is also a risk with demand-driven research that the evidence will challenge interests and established programmes. 

From left to right: Susanna Cartmell-Thorp (WRENmedia), Kiyoshi Shiratori (JICA), Miltone Ayieko (Tegemeo Institute)
Photo credit: CABE AFRICA
Make policy makers aware that you (and your research) exist

Reach out to policy makers and build awareness for potential engagement as the policy context evolves.  Be persistent but brief.   Policy briefs often end up on the policy desk, not in a minister’s hands.  A minister will be attracted to a concise piece of information.  Press coverage can be a much better way to get your research noticed – short but frequent pieces in the media will help to generate interest in your topic and lead to greater attention to detailed aspects. 

Target the right messages to the right people

There are multiple levels to the policy making process and evidence needs to packaged and presented differently for political, managerial and technical teams – achieving the right format will depend on who the information is aimed at. This takes time and might mean having multiple briefs for different audiences.  Clarify who you are trying to reach and specify what their agenda and priorities are as well as who they will need to convince to action your recommendations.  Ensure that your recommendations are precise – a minister will struggle to engage with a policy brief containing 15-20 recommendations so tailor your recommendations accordingly.    

Field practitioners and other researchers may be more interested in the detail and provide a more conducive environment to discuss the technical aspects of research findings but these conversations are far less effective at attracting the attention of policy makers. 

Understand how the system works

Understand the connections between key players at different levels, and the instruments and mechanisms through which they converse.  For example, South African Actuaries Development Programme’s (SAADP) relationship with national governments, or how CAADP creates a point of convergence.   Research products should differentiate between national and regional level, as well as the multiple different levels in government. It should design delivery mechanisms for research and evidence to engage at different levels of policy making.

Invest in networks, not individuals

The relevant contacts in development agencies frequently change, so researchers need to engage with a broader network.  Even when research is relevant, that might not lead to uptake due to other organisational factors and dynamics.  A donor may provide funding for research, but they are not necessarily going to implement the findings.  However there may be interest from other donors so it is important to branch out among several contacts. 

Know your constituent base

Researchers can’t influence policy alone. Nor might they be suitable for advocacy work- getting the format right will depend on who the information is meant for.  Therefore, seek well-connected champions who can assist with reaching and influencing decision makers.  Different groups such as Small Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and farmers’ organisations have their own structures and mechanisms to engage with policy makers.  Ask how your research is relevant to their agendas and advocacy processes.   Ideas and products need to be conveyed in a way that they can understand.  Building ownership across different groups so that they can own a message can also increase your leverage.  This may involve co-branding of outputs and events. 

Know yourself and make yourself known

Research programmes need a clear identity and strategy to engage with policy and other institutions to give credibility to emerging messages.  Gaining visibility and validity at the regional level requires stepping out of the scientific world.  It is important to take advantage of existing networks and build a presence with organisations with a mandate to formulate policy to create a critical mass around your research agenda. Share messages with confidence, persistence and passion to create awareness and a sustained visibility.

This blog was written by Louise Clark from the Institute of Development Studies.

Cover image (from left to right): Dr Janet Edeme (AU), Howard Standen (DFID), Martin Muchero (independent consultant) and Audax Rukonge (ANSAF)

Cover image credit: CABE Africa