Getting a GRIPP on policies: turning research into policy and practice

Policy processes are complex and sometimes chaotic. It is naïve to think that a rational model of policy making would, as a matter of course, influence the policy process. A critical factor in ensuring that research is utilised in the policy process is to engage interested parties early on in the research process to ensure that the research is relevant, say Charles Hongoro, Yu Ke and Jonathan Carter.

 
 

The uptake and use of research results during policy making is influenced by the interests of those involved in the process, and the extent to which research findings are compatible with these multiple interests. Ideally, the focus should largely be on the ultimate beneficiaries of any policy. 

This was the background to a discussion between policy makers, academics, researchers and representatives from civil society, entitled HIV and AIDS in Africa - Getting research/evidence into policy and practice (GRIPP). The discussion was the beginning of a process to canvas views, facilitate constructive engagement of interested parties with the subject, and to make them active participants in the debate. 

HIV/AIDS was used as a case study for the discussion; not only to tackle one of the biggest moral and developmental challenges of the time, but also to concretely explore the objectives of the discussion. It aimed at reaching some consensus and understanding on how best to use existing and emerging knowledge for combating the disease and influencing policy processes more generally. 

To get to grips with the challenges of getting research into policy and practice, the discussion identified possible roles - both ideal and realistic - that research could play in policy making: 

  • Research can expose policy makers to a wide range of validated concepts and experiences from which they could consider alternatives and choose policy options. For instance, research can reveal alternative and cost-effective ways of achieving objectives from the available resources, or provide warning signals of policy failures;
  • Research can ensure that policy makers are held accountable to the political promises made by the government. By comparing historical and current data, monitoring and evaluation research could demonstrate whether policy achieves its stated objectives; and 
  • Research could legitimise policy decisions - a role which is less desirable than the previous two roles, but in reality quite widespread. 

But understanding the possible roles of research in policy and practice does not equate to understanding how research influences policy and practices. The discussion identified many obstacles that could hinder the process. 

Research characteristics that hamper uptake 

Evidence itself changes. With the development of new technology, new evidence can throw doubt on, or even overturn, existing popular evidence. Likewise, when there is a shift in what we know and understand, or the dominant social discourse, the way people perceive the importance and validity of certain evidence could also change. What is more, evidence is often based on probabilities, while for policy makers any level of uncertainty is an enemy in terms of their decision making.

Then social research is also a process, informed by systematically arranging the ideas of both those who create knowledge and those who use knowledge. Research evidence is often created for different purposes and the academic definition of the problem does not always match the political definition. For example, researchers often pursue research in the hope of advancing knowledge, while policy makers want knowledge that buys votes. 

What is more, policy makers often require concrete suggestion of actions while researchers are often hesitant to provide such. And there are groups and sub-groups of people within each community (both knowledge creators and users), who have different ideologies, world views and belief systems. This implies that there can be different perspectives or definitions of problems between departments and individuals, resulting in difficulty in reaching consensus on the interpretation and implication of certain evidence and also on the importance and validity of a certain methodology. 

Fundamental conditions for the uptake of research 

Bearing in mind these obstacles, the following conditions were pointed out as crucial in ensuring that research evidence is considered in the policy process:

  • Evidence needs to provide policy makers with concrete suggestion and options of actions; 
  • The policy-making process is bound by time limits and therefore the dissemination of evidence needs to coincide with policy cycles; and 
  • Researchers should be aware of the political flavour of the times. If their research topic is hot on the policy agenda at the time, they stand a better chance of being noticed and the research results utilised. 

And the accessibility of evidence needs to be improved by removing academic jargon from research reports; by using ‘policy speak' in communicating with policy makers; by keeping documents short and to the point; and by creating an awareness among researchers that they are not speaking to their academic peers, but that their research might be of no concern to policy makers. 

The discussion called attention to the fact that an accessible, good piece of research, does not guarantee that policy makers and practitioners will take it on board. Another point of emphasis was the importance of understanding how power and contestations for control of power could influence the use of research in policy making. 

A key challenge for researchers is to ensure that their research meets the needs of the policy makers, and that it is communicated properly. This implies continuous engagement and dialogue between researcher and policy makers from the moment a problem has been defined and to ensure that there is a shared understanding of the research problem and merits of proposed solutions. 

The Policy Analysis Unit plans to publish the colloquium report and a series of articles derived from the conference proceeding in the coming months. 

Dr Charles Hongoro is the head of the Policy Analysis Unit, Ms Yu Ke a research intern and Jonathan Carter a senior research manager in the same unit.