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  • Writer's pictureClara Richards

Experiences from government institutions: how can we deal better with context?

In a recent post we shared that we are currently conducting with INASP a study called “Going beyond context matters”, which has two main objectives: 1 – to detect which are the windows of opportunity of different contexts for researchers and policymakers to better interact with each other or work jointly; and 2 – to inform the design and delivery of capacity building efforts with regard to the use of research evidence in policy making, by better deciphering how to deal with the context.

Courtesy of Ricardo Cuppini under CC at

To address these objectives, we are currently developing an analytical framework and an emergent practices guidance building on literature and relevant experiences from organizations and individuals working in large initiatives in different regions that engage policymakers and policymaking institutions.

Based on our direct experience, and after going through relevant literature on the topic, we decided to focus the framework on the factors that affect the use of research at the level of government institutions. We believe that these constitute the most obvious and direct environment where practices to promote the use of knowledge in policy take place.

Moreover, the macro context approach, which has dominated the limited existing literature, largely focuses on the level of particular socioeconomic and political realities at the country level. These are usually beyond the sphere of control or influence of specific interventions to promote the use of knowledge in policy, either from the inside or outside the State. Also, as argued by Joshi (2013) at the micro level, local factors can clearly drive the way specific interventions unfold and the extent to which they are successful even within otherwise broadly similar contexts. For example, very similar interventions to build capacity of staff to define a need of evidence to inform a policy design might yield very different outcomes if deployed in the Ministry of Finance (where in many countries there is a large pool of highly regarded and experienced economists as well as economic researchers with experience in developing this type of evidence) or in the Ministry of Social Development. Thus, despite being in similar country contexts, the same type of capacity building activities will play very differently in diverse government institutions.

Finally, the role of institutions in enabling systemic change has also been widely recognized. In 2000 the World Bank produced a strategy document—Reforming Public Institutions and Strengthening Governance: A World Bank Strategy. The strategy aimed to help build efficient and accountable public sector institutions in addition to providing discrete policy advice. The strategy noted that a main lesson from experiences in the 1990s was that “neither good policies nor good investments are likely to emerge and be sustainable in an environment with dysfunctional institutions and poor governance” (World Bank 2000, p. vii).

Dysfunctional and ineffective public institutions and weak governance are increasingly seen to be at the heart of development challenges. These usually lead to misguided resource allocation, excessive government intervention, and arbitrariness and corruption, which as will be analyzed below have clear consequences on how evidence is or not used to inform policy decisions.

Therefore, by focusing on institutional factors that both can affect and be affected by interventions aiming at improving the use of research in policy, we intend to shed some light into how these institutions can be strengthened.

But how can we shed this light? Contributions by literature and practitioners provide a good basis to build our upcoming framework , but we are mostly interested now in clearly developing the practical implications as well as identifying concrete emergent practices by State agencies and its members that have been effective to deal with challenges and seize opportunities at the institutional level.

We believe in the value of co-producing knowledge and that there is surely a critical mass of relevant experience in Southern countries on how to grapple with these challenges. However, it is not easy to find these experiences because they are not that visible, and most of them have not been systematized. We are thus seeking for help: does anyone of you know of concrete mechanisms/processes/spaces in your countries deployed by a government institution to promote the use of knowledge in policy? If so, could you please link us with this experience? The results of this effort will benefit all of us who are striving to strengthen how research is used in policy processes so please contribute to it, if you can!

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