How do we make research more useful? In the latest in a series of columns on policy and evidence, Globaldev talks to an African civil servant involved in policy-making about the use of evidence in his work, as well as some general lessons.
Globaldev: What role should research play in public policy-making?
George Amoah: Research, data and statistics are the lifeblood of every good and well-thought-out policy and/or monitoring program. They serve as the basis for determining the root causes of problems needing resolution through policy while helping to unearth possible options for remedying such problems. Thus, I believe the use of credible, unbiased, and high-quality research must be encouraged.
Globaldev: What has been your experience with that in Ghana?
George Amoah: To be tracked effectively, the performance of the Departments and Agencies under the Ministry of Employment and Labour Relations (MELR), the Research, Statistics and Information Management Directorate has been collating administrative data from them over the years. They compile annual reports so that those in charge of monitoring and evaluation will have a basis for measuring and tracking their performance.
The process is successful because the research evidence meets the expectations of policy-makers, and the reports are also easy for non-experts to understand and apply.
During the determination of the National Daily Minimum Wage by the Tripartite Committee (NTC) of the MELR, research is commissioned (undertaken by the Technical Sub-Committee) looking at the economic conditions in order to come up with recommendations on the fair and suitable percentage increment to be approved by representatives of employers and labor on the NTC.
Some research or evaluations have also been commissioned but were not used, or the studies needed to be done again. This normally occurs when the work done by those commissioned is not of adequate standard, is not ‘user-friendly’, or when some events have necessitated the adoption of different types of evidence. I recall that some needs assessments were commissioned but didn’t provide any valuable information because they were not done well, and hence were not used. Instead, new ones had to be commissioned.
Another reason is that those who commission the research are involved from the beginning to the end. This is even more critical when we consider the full process for policy-making in Ghana and the role that research plays in the acceptance or rejection of a particular policy (see Figure 1).
Globaldev: What research counts as evidence?
George Amoah: In policy-making, all kinds of evidence are relevant except that it needs to be relevant in terms of the depth of information being provided, the possibility of it leading to provision of sustainable solutions to the problem needing to be addressed, how timely it is, acceptance by stakeholders (especially those affected by the problem), etc.
Hence, evidence such as data and statistics, research, citizens’ knowledge, and practice-informed knowledge are welcome any day. The only types of evidence not considered are those that are too academic, that use excessive jargon, and that are obsolete.
Globaldev: How do policy-makers typically source research evidence?
George Amoah: We mostly try to get the knowledge required from the source/author where possible or use informal networks. Otherwise, we mostly search for the information on the internet. It is difficult sometimes to rely on academic journal publications because of their very technical nature as well as the way they are written for their main target audience. It is better if academic research is understood by the policy-maker in order to be able to use it effectively.
Due to the need to make quick decisions and provide prompt responses to public problems, policy-makers usually prefer that the research documents they consult are not only understandable and user-friendly, but also recommend possible courses of action to consider. Notwithstanding that, it is expected that research be factual, verifiable, and based on analytical information or data.
Globaldev: Do different types of research have different weights for policy-makers?
George Amoah: It is always worthwhile when development research is made available and accessible whether directly, online, or through intermediaries. The bottom line is that the research must be relevant to the decision-maker in terms of content, context, and population. Sometimes, it becomes difficult to use some research because despite being of a good quality and being credible, it may not address the issue at hand.
Thus, research used as evidence in policy-making must clearly answer questions raised by the policy-maker. It must be possible to prove that the research is linked to your evidence needs and the type of question you are answering; that it is specific or related geographically to the evidence you need; that even when the evidence is from another context or relates to another population from the target you are looking for, its context and population are still applicable to your situation; that the timeframe covered by the evidence fits with your concerns; that it addresses the complexity and generality of the problem; and that the findings and recommendations are widely applicable.
Globaldev: How should researchers think about the broader context of public policy-making?
George Amoah: Public policy is not made in a vacuum, but is part of a dynamic and continuously changing world. Demographics change constantly: hence we need to understand the social and cultural issues at play in order to be able to come up with good policies. Cultural attitudes, values, beliefs, and norms all affect public policy-making.
There is also the need to keep at the back of our minds, economic factors—relating to budgets (constraints mostly), taxes, inflation, unemployment, etc.—because they have huge implications for the success or otherwise of a policy.
The political environment is also very critical if not the most important factor. If the political leadership is not convinced by a policy, it may be difficult to gain approval and implement it successfully. It must align with the vision and manifesto of the political leadership, or it may be difficult to adopt it.
It is worth noting that by ‘political’, we mean the political dynamics of those making the decisions. This is normally different from the government, which is just a set of institutions that develop the policy.
Globaldev: How can researchers and policy-makers work together more effectively?
George Amoah: Collaborative research should be encouraged between researchers and policy-makers. This is because most policy-making entities have research wings that are expected to make evidence available to the policy-maker on request. In addition, seeking the input of policy-makers during the research design stage is useful, especially if the ultimate goal of the research is to inform policy.
Cross-training should be encouraged where researchers can offer training to policy-makers to understand the ins and outs of research, as well as how it is interpreted, while policy-makers can sensitize researchers to the policy-making process in order for them to appreciate why their evidence is sometimes rejected.
You need to prove that evidence actually works. It is also important not to overwhelm policy-makers with evidence and documents. Communication skills and the way you present data are very important. And the quality of what you present is very important because that is what makes evidence reliable. Once that is done, you win the hearts and support of senior management, who can direct others to do the same.
Globaldev: In what ways can we encourage a culture of using evidence for development impact?
George Amoah: The best way of institutionalizing the culture of using evidence for development impact, apart from using champions within an organization, is to train staff continuously in evidence-based policy-making and related areas.
In Ghana, it has been incorporated into the curricula of the foremost institution for training civil servants: the Civil Service Training Centre (CSTC). The CSTC adopts two approaches:
- First, it runs the Evidence Informed Policy-making (EIPM) course as a standalone course.
- Second, portions of EIPM have been added to the Accelerated Scheme of Service Training course, which is run as a promotional course both for officers directly involved in policy-making and those that are not.
The EIPM is mainly for those that in one way or the other are affecting or expected to affect the policy-making process. In order to sustain policy-makers’ interest in EIPM courses, the CSTC tries to make training practical and interesting for all.
For example, we develop courses on accessing and assessing evidence, which are part of a more comprehensive EIPM training course to give participants basic skills of accessing, filtering, and assessing evidence before use or communicating.
It is also worth noting that leadership and management are important to the successful institutionalization of the use of evidence. This is because senior managers and leaders make the final decision on whether evidence will be used or not to make a decision and in which form. They contribute with their support in terms of commitment to use evidence; resource allocation; monitoring results; coaching, mentoring and guidance; training; encouragement; and communication of evidence.
Figure 1: The policy-making process in Ghana
- Policy could be rejected if the research is either weak or irrelevant, stakeholders are not properly consulted, or the Cabinet memo submitted does not meet the required standard.
- The diagram above is the author’s own impression of the policy-making process in Ghana. The red arrow point to reasons for rejection of policy by the Cabinet of Ghana or even Parliament. You notice that research is also a ground for acceptance or rejection of a policy submitted to the Cabinet.
George Amoah is Deputy Director at the Ministry of Employment and Labour Relations in Ghana and Adjunct Trainer, Civil Service Training Centre (CSTC).
This article was published as part of our debate on research use, organized in partnership with GDN and Results for All. Abeba Tadese, executive director of Results for All, joined our editorial team for this blog series.