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  • Leandro Echt and Vanesa Weyrauch

Our focus for context: governmental institutions

Updated: Apr 19, 2021

[Editor’s note: This post is part a series produced by Vanesa Weyrauch and Leandro Echt from Politics&Ideas to share what we learn through the project “Going beyond ‘Context matters”, supported by the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP).]

Context is clearly a complex environment where different levels of policy decisions and implementation take place as the results of simultaneous interaction among several stakeholders (not only policymakers but also those trying to influence them or affected by them such as citizens, media, private companies, unions, civil society organisations, research centres, etc.). Therefore, to be able to detect key factors within context that affect the use of research in policy, we decided to draw some boundaries that allowed focusing our effort.

After going through relevant literature on the topic and based on our own experience, we decided to focus the framework on the factors that affect the use of research at the level of government institutions taking this as the context, instead of concentrating on macro level factors.

By Pabs D under CC at

By Pabs D under CC at

There are several reasons that justify this focus. First of all, we believe that concrete governmental institutions constitute the most obvious and direct environment where practices to promote the use of knowledge in policy take place: they are the setting where most decisions about policies are discussed and most importantly, in the case of executive branch institutions, implemented. Thus, chances for research to inform different aspects of their working appear more systematically and in a continuous way.

Second, the macro context approach, which has dominated the limited existing literature on context, largely focuses on the level of particular socioeconomic and political realities at the national level (such as extent of political freedom, media freedom, etc.). Macro context factors, as we will analyse in more detail in Section 1 are usually beyond the sphere of control or influence of those trying to promote the use of knowledge in policy, either from the inside or outside the State. In this sense, since the study aims at helping to more effectively and strategically identify potential areas of change for different types of interventions, looking into such macro level factors does not appear to be a good choice; very rarely will specific interventions be able to significantly affect these.

As argued by Joshi (2013: 6) 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. This means that under the same macro-contextual factors, different agents could produce heterogeneous results. 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) compared to the Ministry of Social Development. Thus, despite sharing similar macro contexts, the same type of capacity building activities will play very differently among diverse government institutions. Therefore choosing adequately the best entry points at the institutional level seems to be an effective strategy to elevate potential for sustainable change.

Third, change at the institutional level bears more potential than just focusing on the individual. As Ademokun and Harle (2014) expressed, even though training people is still really important, this alone isn’t sufficient to achieve lasting results. There is a need to be thinking about how individuals are enabled – or not – by the broader environment for research, and how they work together, within and across departments and institutions.

There are interventions like the Knowledge Sector Initiative in Indonesia which are trying to work at several levels simultaneously: identify solutions to address system-wide constraints to the knowledge sector (for example, reforms in the regulation about procurement of research by government organisations, funding in the national budget for research and development, the incentives of researchers in university to conduct more research). At the same time, KSI is also working in selected policy areas to bring together knowledge producers, knowledge intermediaries, and those who demand and use of evidence to test ways to strengthen the interaction between them as well as addressing specific capabilities of those organisations. There are, however, very few initiatives in this field that have enough resources and timeframes to catalyse change at different levels. Therefore, changes within institutions –either driven from within and/or supported from outside- appear to be more feasible for those working with smaller projects and shorter timeframes.

Last but not least, the role of institutions in enabling systemic change has also been widely recognised in development-related projects. There is a promising potential to contribute to change when focusing at the institutional level, due to the significant role bore by institutions within any system. For example, in 2000 the World Bank produced a strategy document that 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: vii).

This is then also strongly related to the good governance agenda. This term emerged in 1990s from growing concerns about governance. As a consequence, “Good Governance” was defined as essential to promote development, build capacity, and combat poverty by various large players such as UN, Commission for Africa, DFID, World Bank, Commonwealth Secretariat, etc. Even though the concept is quite broad, according to there is agreement on several key principles: Participation and inclusiveness (involvement and ownership by a broad range of stakeholders); accountability (decision-makers responsible for their actions, checks and balances in place; etc.) and respect for institutions and laws (rules apply equally to everyone in society; corruption is controlled; etc.)

Even though there is not yet a body of evidence on positive change within governmental institutions leading to better outcomes for the society, dysfunctional and ineffective public institutions and weak governance are increasingly regarded 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 analysed below have clear consequences on how evidence is or not used to inform policy decisions.

Therefore, by focusing on the institutional context and analysing 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 which factors are relevant and how they could be potentially addressed based on a set of practical implications and emergent practices. The latter will be part of a practical knowledge product.

We will present the main dimensions of our framework in the next blog post of the series.

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