Improving the evidence-policy interface can mean a long-term commitment

By Mapula Tshangela and Louise Shaxon

2008-workshop

The participants who attended the Collaborative Workshop on Evidence-based Policy-making that was held at SAPPI Technology Centre in Pretoria on 19 and 20 November 2008. Image: CSIR

If you’re serious about embedding an evidence-informed approach within a government department, you’ve got to be prepared to make a long-term and even a personal commitment. That’s the message from the BCURE-funded project based at the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), which ended in December 2016.

While the BCURE project began in 2014, the initial idea can be traced back to a multi-stakeholder workshop held in South Africa in 2008. People from research and government backgrounds, including Mapula Tshangela from DEA, Nikki Funke from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and Louise Shaxson who is now at ODI, came together to discuss how to improve the science-policy interface and how to implement what was then a relatively new concept of ‘knowledge brokering’.

The main lesson from the workshop, as set out in the report, was that there are many interfaces between science and policy: it isn’t any one organisation’s responsibility to ensure that the supply of evidence matched the demand from policy.  Everyone has a stake in improving relationships across the different interfaces.

After the workshop Nikki and Louise continued to work on evidence in their own spheres: Nikki in research on the science-policy interface in CSIR and Louise in the UK and Indonesia on developing organisational approaches to embedding the use of evidence.

Mapula returned to her job in DEA inspired to put the workshop’s learning into practice.  But one workshop doesn’t change a Department’s collective mind about what to do and how to work: she had to find ways to get the learning from the workshop noticed.  So, she took personal responsibility; writing into her own annual performance agreement that she would spend about 20% of her time working to develop a department-wide framework for implementing an evidence-based approach.  After this had been approved she began to bring together a group of like-minded people, both within the branch where she worked and in other branches, to help her. This both shared the load and shared the responsibility; with more people involved and management support it was easier to escalate the importance of the work and ensure that it was recognised at branch and departmental level.

Mapula continued to work with this internal group for four years, continually escalating the responsibility for implementing a structured evidence-informed approach higher and higher within DEA. The Research, Development and Evidence Framework which set the direction for evidence work in DEA was published with Ministerial approval, in 2012.

While the RD&E Framework was a great statement of principles, help was needed to turn them into practical actions that policy teams could take.  So when the BCURE-funded opportunity arose in 2014 there were already champions in DEA keen to do some substantive work on evidence, and the three of us who had participated in the 2008 workshop.  We collectively defined the project’s objectives quite broadly—to help DEA implement the RD&E Framework—and we argued that the precise details of how we would do this would be devised once we had got to know DEA well.

During this diagnostic phase Nikki, Louise and the rest of the project team worked closely with Mapula to develop a deep understanding of what influenced DEA’s use of evidence, where good practices were already evident, and where practices could be strengthened.  We adapted a set of guidelines that others can use to inform their work on evidence—given that responsibility for implementing an EIP approach must be shared, these can help stimulate discussions about how to go about it. We worked with the Biodiversity & Conservation and Sustainable Development & Green Economy policy themes to pilot Research & Evidence Strategies, involving people across the sector in describing policy’s key questions and understanding where the relevant evidence lies. But mainly what we did was to bring greater structure to the work on evidence, and to provide a boost to discussions that are continuing even after the project has ended.

The people who had worked with Mapula over the years became the BCURE project’s steering group, helping us navigate the different interfaces between evidence and policy across the Department. We reached out to others in DEA who we thought would be interested in our messages: some responded and some didn’t.  And we brought in people from other government departments and research institutions to ensure that we didn’t become too DEA-focused and that our work had wider relevance.

What have we learned from this?  Two things stand out. First, developing a commitment to implementing an evidence-informed approach inside government is as much personal as it is institutional. And it may have to begin as a personal commitment until you can build a group of people with sufficient weight and management support for it to become an institutional exercise.  Second, it can take a lot of time, because this embedding process has to happen while the rest of the department’s work carries on in all its complexity. We all know that if your time is split 80% on project A and 20% on project B, what really happens is you spend 100% of your time on project A and finding that 20% becomes very difficult indeed. The fact that Mapula managed to get the RD&E Framework published speaks to her very strong personal commitment to evidence.

So whether you work in a government department, a research institution or an NGO; if you see someone trying to improve how evidence is prioritised, gathered and used, we hope you’ll recognise the personal nature of their commitment and the length of the journey they have embarked on—and that you’ll offer to help them carry their load towards collective institutional impact.