BY KAKAIRE AYUB KIRUNDA, COMMUNICATIONS OFFICER, FHS UGANDA
At the end of February, I travelled to Nigeria for the International Conference on Evidence-informed Policy Making. I've already posted some of my reflections on and takeaways from the conference, but while there I also had the opportunity to interview Dr Kirsty Newman, the Head of the Evidence-Informed Policy Making Programme at INASP.
As one of the organisers of the conference, she had a lot to say about the role of evidence in the policy-making process. Below are her answers to five questions I posed her around research, evidence use, and policy processes.
1. What is your understanding of 'policy'?
Usually when I talk about policy I am thinking about public policy- in other words the decisions made by governments about what to do or indeed what not to do! It is important to realise that policy does not necessarily mean legislation.
I recognize that there are other types of policy too. For example, large non-governmental organizations such as the Red Cross or Oxfam make decisions on what to do that also can have a big impact on people's lives.
2. Who are the stakeholders in the policy making process that should be targeted with research based evidence for policy influence?
I feel that too much energy is put into trying to influence Members of Parliament- these are sometimes seen as the only policy makers! It is important to realise that the executive arm of government as opposed to the parliament is usually the key driver of policy making. Although parliament has a role in scrutinizing policy, many parliaments are in reality quite weak. So for a start I would suggest thinking about the executive as well as the parliament. This might include relevant ministries but also para-statal or semi-autonomous agencies which sit below ministry level. I would also suggest looking at the staff who work within policy making institutions. These might include policy analysts, legislative drafters, advisors, researchers, librarians and so on. These people play a key role in providing information and advice to the high level policy makers and so it is very important that they are well informed.
3. In what ways can researchers get the attention of these stakeholders with an aim of understanding their needs or constraints to using research for evidence informed policy making?
I believe that one of the key things that we all need to think about is that policy makers and their staff will never make use of research evidence if they don't understand what it is. Therefore, I think it is crucial that as well as pushing out research to them (supply) we consider how to build their capacity to understand, critically evaluate and use research (demand). This might involve training policy makers and their staff or simply taking the time to explain research concepts to them.
Given my own background in medical science, I am constantly surprised by how many people are making decisions on medical issues without even a basic understanding of key research concepts such as randomized placebo controlled trials. If you don't understand this method then there is no reason that you would think that a properly tested drug is better than a drug for which there is only anecdotal evidence.
4. Do we have success stories to look at in terms of uptake of research evidence for policy making?
Last time I was in Nairobi, I was watching a local TV station and they were discussing herbal medicines. They had a Kenyan scientist on explaining how these medicines can be tested to see if they are really effective. Rather than relying on her status and just saying 'we are the experts so we can tell you what works', she was taking the time to explain concepts such as the placebo effect, confirmation bias etc. and explaining why rigorous research methodologies are needed in order to determine if a given drug really works. I was really impressed by this approach- it went far beyond what I would usually expect of a news channel in the UK.
I think the only way that policy making will ever be evidence-based is if the population understands research and demands policies based on sound evidence. So in a way I see this as a success story- or at least a step in the right direction. I think that if we put more effort into explaining what research evidence is and how it can help us to make better decisions, then we will achieve more evidence-based policy in the future.
5. How best can researchers communicate their findings to policy makers?
Education, education, education! Of policy makers but also of the public. If they understand research they will be far more receptive to the findings you have to offer. If they don't understand research then you are just competing with all the other lobbyists to see who can shout the loudest!