ODI is an independent, global think tank that harnesses the power of evidence and ideas through research and partnership to confront challenges, develop solutions and create change. Here ODI outlines key elements in effective police change.
Around the world, we are facing enormous challenges. Poverty, conflict, migration, disease and natural disasters are just some of the reasons why many people don’t have access to quality basic services and opportunities.
Public policies that seek to address these challenges will only work if the choices made by decision-makers, technical or political, are informed by the best available evidence.
This is why research is essential. It can produce good evidence to inform local, national and international policy that, in turn, has the potential to transform lives for the better.
But influencing policy is neither easy nor automatic – you need to want to do it. To be successful, you need to be open to different ways of working.
Here are 10 things you need to know if you want to use research to influence policy.
1. Know what you want to influence
Being clear about the policy issue, theme or process you want to change is the first step to effective policy influencing. Are you looking to influence legislation, or a change in government policy? You might want to encourage greater investment in a certain programme or approach, or a change in practice. You might want to influence perceptions or attitudes, or the language people use around an issue.
2. Know who you want to influence
Who has the power to enact a change in a policy process or change the debate on an issue? Is it a senior government official, a parliamentarian, a government minister or a head of state? You need to be clear about who you want to influence. It’s also useful to identify who can indirectly influence your target audience – an adviser, a respected commentator, a media outlet, a well-known academic? Know the routes to the people and organisations you need to influence and build relationships with them. And remember that you might not always be the best messenger. An audience mapping tool can be useful here.
3. Know when to influence
Your research needs to reach your target audience at a moment when they can take action. For example, this could be in the leadup to an election, during a budget cycle, as part of a government consultation, ahead of an international decision-making summit, or at a key meeting. Unexpected opportunities will also emerge. So having the flexibility to react and adapt your plans as you go is important. If you can quickly spot policy opportunities as they arise, you may be able to have greater impact. Think ‘strategic opportunism’.
4. Build relationships and networks
You can’t change policy by yourself, no matter how ground-breaking your research is. You should find and work with other people and organisations who share your policy influencing objective – your allies and collaborators. Working together, building trust and developing a joint plan will increase your impact.
5. Policy development is not a linear process
It is tempting to think that policy processes are linear: you identify a problem, gather evidence and implement a policy. But they aren’t. Policy-making is complex, dynamic and involves a lot of different people and moving parts. Nonetheless, policy formulation does have its own formal and informal rhythms. If you understand these, you’ll know where your evidence will be most useful and have greatest impact.
6. Policy-making is inherently political
Policy-making is often a very political process. Alongside research, policy-makers’ own values, experience and expertise play an important role in influencing how they make decisions. For example, in the lead-up to a general election it’s not uncommon to see the same research being used by competing political parties to argue different points. You should factor this into your plans and develop a political strategy.
7. Plan your engagement
You need to think carefully about how to communicate your research. Policy-makers are busy so won’t always have time to read a long report. A short, sharp executive summary or policy brief can be a powerful tool. Focus on clear messages and avoid overly technical language. Infographics can also help to make your data accessible. Consider other outreach activities too, such as press releases, public events, bilateral meetings, presentations or side events at summits and conferences.
8. Focus on ideas and be propositional
Policy-makers don’t need to be told the problem; they need constructive ideas, so be propositional. Based on your research, tell them what should happen, who could take action, when and how. It’s also important to frame your recommendations within the realms of what is possible, both technically and politically. Be ambitious, but realistic.
9. It takes time, stick at it
Influencing policy takes time and commitment. Make a plan, break it down, and be realistic about what you can do. Often it can be a slow process with no obvious impact in the short term. But stick with it, recognise that policy influencing is usually a marathon not a sprint, and be sure to set milestones and capture the small successes as you go. Continue to engage with your target audience and always keep up-to-date on the decision-making process.
10. Monitor, learn and adjust along the way
External factors will affect your plans along the way so it’s important to remain flexible and adapt to new contexts and opportunities. You should also seek feedback from allies, partners, and even your target audience. Ask them what they need and when, as well as what format they prefer and adjust your plans accordingly. If you find an approach is not working, you should stop, assess and try something new. Continuously review, and capture your learning as you go so you can apply it to future influencing plans. And, be willing to share your learning with key partners.
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