Are we really on the driving seat when trying to link research and policy?
I have participated in the past years in many projects and witnessed lots of discussions on how to monitor and evaluate whether research has (or has not) influenced policy. For sure, pressure to demonstrate to donors that their money was well invested is the main driver in these debates and initiatives. Accountability (and frequently a very limited view of accountability) explains most of the efforts to track down whether a piece or body of research has had any type of impact in policy.
Sometimes this driver is so strong that it leaves behind attractive opportunities to evaluate our work for improving operational and strategic decisions, empowering ourselves and our teams and learning. However, my main fear regarding this type of efforts is when accountability is framed to respond to what others have set as their notions of success and failure instead of our own. Of course, it is very understandable and necessary to take into account what those who fund our work expect from it. However, this needs to be a part of the conversation and of the decision making in terms of what we will research, how we will do it, how we want that research to be known, used, socialized. The risk of measuring ourselves solely against external standards instead of taking who we really want to be and what we genuinely want do as a starting point is very wisely described by Alain de Botton in his famous TED Talk A kinder, gentler philosophy of success.
The talk focuses on how we as individuals increasingly experience career anxiety due to the strong social pressure for being successful and a deep belief in a meritocratic society which according to de Bottom is a very misleading concept. Why? In a very witty way he explains how there are too many random factors (accidents, illnesses, etc.) that interfere between what we do and its results. The same, I would argue, applies to any effort to link politics with ideas, not least if we acknowledge that this relationship implies many more stakeholders interacting simultaneously and at different levels.
This was more effectively dealt with in the past when those who were not benefiting greatly from what life could give to them were called “unfortunate”, i. e not blessed by fortune. This is completely different from our way of labeling those individuals today as “ losers” as if they were fully responsible for what happens to them.
Thinking that it is just us (as researchers or policymakers or practitioners, etc.) who are in the driving seat is exhilarating if you are doing well but very crushing if you are not. It might make more sense to begin instead by being the real authors of our ambitions (for example, genuinely owning and believing in our theory of change!). As the philosopher warns: “It is bad enough not to get what you want, but it’s even worse to find out at the end that it wasn’t even what you wanted”.
So, a fairly good step in terms of moving the debate forward and improving efforts to monitor and evaluate policy influence, is probing our notions of success (and failure as well!). This section can become a good space to conduct such an exercise. Ideas welcome!