Government agencies are increasingly committing resources and energy to improve the way they use knowledge to inform policy. These efforts take many different forms but, regardless of whether efforts are centered in a specific project or policy issue, we are witnessing a significant growth in policymakers discussing, thinking and acting to strengthen their organizations as a whole to better use research. Vanesa Weyrauch, co-founder of Politics & Ideas, states that making sure that the resources and energy committed are well spent, requires assessing the pace, degree and focus of organizational change.
Organizational change is now the rule, rather than the exception. All organizations are continuously undergoing modifications: new staff, modified policies, responding to emerging and different demands from external stakeholders.
But, what happens when we take organizational change as an explicitly expressed and thoughtful purpose? Moreover, how can we plan change so that an organization improves the way it produces and/or uses knowledge to inform policies?
We believe that context plays a big role in how research and policy interact. For agencies wishing to improve their use of evidence, it is important to understand how this context plays out within their specific organization in order to identify what concrete factors need to be considered when developing effective plans for change.
To address this challenge, we have developed a framework that helps government organizations improve their use of knowledge for policy making by understanding the context within which they operate. Our approach entails partnering with public agencies to assess where they are and then facilitate a participatory process to identify windows of opportunity that become part of a change plan. The intention is to generate real and lasting impact. This might mean reducing the timeframe for decisions, working with a long-term and strategic perspective, or strengthening arguments for policy debates with other agencies. It could also mean increasing capacity of staff to make better-informed decisions, documenting information to better communicate to citizens and critical stakeholders, streamlining key processes and procedures, and preserving institutional memory.
Embracing – and navigating – complexity in the real world
We recognize that public agencies operate within a dynamic and complex system. A government agency is part of a larger policy-making system; the agency and the wider system interact with one another and both are influenced by a complex web of relationships, institutions and individuals, as well as the macro context.
Our framework builds on the assumption that understanding the current situation and imagining and implementing enhancements require an integrated, holistic approach. This means looking at the organization itself (internal factors) as well as the broader political economy (external factors). It means addressing visible changes, such as new processes or behaviours, and invisible changes, such as motivations and cultures around knowledge use.
Our framework is organized around six interrelated areas to help break down this complexity: four areas focus on the organization itself, and two look externally beyond the organization.Assessing evidence use in Peru.
We have used this approach for pilots with the Secretariat of Public Management in Perú and for the Environmental Protection Agency in Ghana (see more about this work in this interview and this case study). This was a valuable opportunity to learn how the tool – and our identification of the six dimensions of context – would play out in a real-world context and to see what an integrated approach means in practice.
Letting inter-relatedness in
Of course, internal and external aspects of a government agency are not that clearly separated and different. They influence each other. This became evident when we started developing methods and tools to gather information on each of the six dimensions of the framework in Ghana and Perú. Our partners had a hard time helping us identify how to ensure we were covering all the dimensions and at the same time strategically deciding whom to consult, due to all the interrelated factors.
In practice, interviewees and workshop participants regard the system as a whole too, because that is the way it influences their day-to-day work. They asked: “How can we centre our attention on relationships with other stakeholders without speaking about internal culture?”
The interdependence and links between factors becomes very visible when we start to dig into the subdimensions of each large dimension: for example, should leadership (a subdimension) be considered as part of culture or of organizational capacity? Are coordination challenges with other government agencies part of how we describe relationships with them or a consequence of most of the curr
ent management and processes that are in place?
We decided to remain flexible in terms of how we use subdimensions in practice, allowing links to emerge naturally, as participants of the process referred to the dimensions and subdimensions and found connections. The large dimensions became ways to organize some discussions and present general findings but thinking about change requires the ability to highlight interconnections and identify strategies that foresee how internal and external movements will interplay.
Get as many perspectives as you can
An integrated approach also means combining internal perspectives and assessment of those who are part of the governmental agency with the perspectives of external stakeholders with whom they frequently interact.
External perspectives can shed light into diverse aspects of a problem but also into potential solutions. Bringing in voices from other government agencies as well as non-state stakeholders opens up the floor to new ideas and a better understanding about why some knowledge processes are working well while others are not.
In the case of SGP in Perú, we made a decision to host two external workshops: one with those in the ministries who are in charge of knowledge management and another with non-state actors such as universities and think tanks. This allowed us to corroborate some assumptions from the agency about how it is perceived and valued by others, but also revealed the need to engage an even larger group of users of the knowledge produced by SGP to further their understanding of how well they are producing and sharing knowledge. To do this, we developed a detailed map of different types of users, and launched a survey, to learn more about how these different types of users assess the relevance, quality, accessibility of the knowledge products that the agency shares.
Of course, integrated approaches require more time, energy and thinking – but we think it is worth it.
Our original question was: how can we plan change thoughtfully and realistically so that an organization improves the way it produces and/or uses knowledge to inform policies? We think it is important that change becomes an ongoing dialogue between those dealing with different internal aspects of the organization as well as a strategic and more conscious interaction with relevant stakeholders. Taking an integrated approach from the very beginning amplifies the potential to find out what are likely to be the most meaningful next steps for the whole institution.
Images in this post were taken during work with Secretariat of Public Management in Perú