The power of reflection when building your research agenda
[Editor’s note: This post was written by Tanja Jakobi, Media analyst and researcher at CENTAR Public Policy Research Centre, Serbia. It is the ninth article of a series of reflections to share what facilitators and participants learned through P&I’s online course Doing policy relevant research, ran for the first time in the first quarter of 2016.]
Let me start with one Serbian joke: “Have you read the book The Bridge Over the Drina?” (written by Ivo Andric, a Nobel Prize Winer in 1961) says one man to the other. “Read? Why would I?”, says the other man somewhat insulted. “I know it better than that. I walk over that bridge every day!”
As researchers, we walk up and down our research agenda all the time. We think and rethink our methodological approach, we worry about bits and pieces related to our focus groups, in depth interviews, and statistical tools, or about the way we interpret the findings in context of previously gathered data in a meaningful way. We see policy gaps and give recommendations how they should be fixed. We walk through the process thoroughly and sternly.
But walking through the process is not exactly the same as reflecting on it. Often we are not aware of how much of our rigor we drew from academic work and to what extent are we immersed in it, or we take for granted that if something has academic merit, it would have its merit for the society as well, and will affect policy makers and the public just because of its quality and relevance. Sometimes, or even more often than not, it is the case – our work is well known within our closest NGO circle, it is implemented in certain public policy solutions, replicated by other researchers and valued by donors who supported our work. It sometimes gets its spot in media too. The success varies due to many reasons, one of them being that we are all different types of policy entrepreneurs, if at all.
It might be not enough if we want to establish ourselves as a think tank which resources and impact are well recognized among policy makers and donor community at large, and sought after by media as an important pool of knowledge and interlocutors in the areas we cover – security and social-economic policies.
Before the P&I course on Doing Policy Relevant Research, we were aware that there are some blocks on our road, and we did try to fix it by various actions in line with the types of the projects we were engaged in, and of course based on ideas of each team on priorities in the process. But we were looking for something more, the institutional support which will allow us to reflect upon our institutional and personal research agenda in the broader context, and let us share our experience, struggles and doubts with our counterparts.
It is often said that where ordinary people see just a plain smooth path, philosophers see a road full of potholes. During the P&I course, while reflecting on our institutional and personal research agendas we found out several potholes in the way we do things:
first, in designing our research topics, we should introduce policy makers and donors in that process much earlier than we usually did, and that is in the process of drafting our findings. While it was useful, and we certainly think that we should proceed with it, we found out that the course encouraged us to do so in the early stages of the process;
second, in gathering data we should introduce more statistical tools, and if we want to convey data in a way easier to grasp by policy makers and public, we should be capable to translate our statistics into meaningful infographic;
third, we should enhance policy relevance and impact of our research by improving our communication tools so that they are inbuilt in every step of our projects. And that is we should communicate our ideas, not just at the beginning of one project, or in the process of drafting the conclusions, or once when we presented our findings, but all the way to make our entire work consistent, meaningful and useful in the course of policy making process. In case of the Centre, that (among other things) means that we should put more effort into consistently turning our policy recommendations into series of policy briefs which will pull their scientific merit from the previous findings, but interpret them and build on them, taking into consideration new challenges in policy making.
fourth, learning from other larger think tanks presented at the course, we have started to think about how to turn things we learned, into an institutional gain.
During the course, we had a lot of discussion among ourselves on how to implement some of the lessons learned. Before writing the proposal for our next project we decided to pay a visit to a donor we didn’t work before, and exchange ideas about our research interest and why we think it is relevant for the policy making. The effort proved to be successful, and we are currently working on it.
We also introduced a lot of infographic into another project, which proved to be useful both for making things clearer and easier to follow. It made policy shortcomings more easy to comprehend, and the urge for policy makers to fix them more visible. Anyway, policy and public wise, effects of our recommendations were limited. We also produced several policy briefs, based on our previous research focus, but with new relevant data and comments related to new processes of policy making. Again, some of these efforts proved to be more successful than others.
Bottom line, there is no course which will be an instant remedy for various problems think tanks are facing in their everyday work. However, they are bringing one important ingredient into our regular walking routine. And that is reflection.
The Centre gained a lot by receiving the institutional support, which pieces fit well one with the other – P&I course being one of the means of support. The biggest riddle now is how to make what we have learned, into an instructional virtue.
One of the ideas that easily comes to mind is to make a sort of the rulebook which will put together our new and previous experience, and to which every researcher in the Centre will turn to when he or she faces some doubts when balancing between his/hers own research agenda and the Centre’s institutional research agenda. By all means this will make our walk easier.
However, it is important for us to maintain a reflexive attitude towards ourselves and others to build an organization that is more than its separate parts. How to do that, requires a lot of thinking.
[Editor’s note: Read other post of this series: