More than 10 years ago I joined the Department for International Development (DfID) as an advisor working in what was then known as the Central Research Department. The landscape of policy relevant social science research, has unsurprisingly, changed enormously. That is why I find the opportunity to come together in Pretoria to reflect upon the ESRC/DFID partnership and lessons relating to the relationship between research policy and practice over the last 10 years hugely exciting.
Making research relevant
Looking back, I recall the difficulties that we had as advisors in ‘selling’ research to colleagues in country offices. The very nature of the devolved approach within DfID presented challenges for commissioning relevant research from the centre, in London and Glasgow. Many colleagues in country felt that academic research commissioned from the UK was of little relevance to their needs working at the sharp end delivering basic services, supporting government systems and addressing poverty in its myriad complexities.
However challenges were certainly not restricted just to the inner workings and dynamics of DfID. The interests and outputs of the social science community also played a part. DfID Advisors and programme managers found it difficult to translate or interpret academic styles of communication. Much of the debate at the time within DfID research was about how to improve the relevance of social science and how to better engage policy makers and practitioners.
Creating research together: co-production and capacity building
We began to better understand the dynamic ways in which ‘evidence’ came to play a role in shaping policy and practice. We recognised the importance of what we now think of as ‘co-production’, but referred to at the time as developing partnerships and establishing dialogue between those working in policy and practice contexts and researchers. We also recognised the need for a greater focus on developing country national researchers to be at the centre of these relationships. The challenges of supporting the capacity of these researchers and indeed policy audiences in the use of evidence has indeed waxed and waned in its importance and the extent to which research and research processes could address systemic failures and weaknesses within policy and higher education. Collectively we have come a long way.
There is now high expectation that policy and practice should be informed by evidence and draw on the best and most rigorous research. The research community, at least in the UK, are now expected to demonstrate the impact of their work, and we often receive unsolicited request to partner at the proposal stages of researchers work.
Where are we now?
I returned briefly to the DfID Research and Evidence Division 2014/15, to find that the approaches and debates had changed and that there was a huge focus the use of evidence for policy and programmes. So much so that it was suggested that 3 per cent of our overall budget should be allocated to research. All our business cases and theories of change must now be underpinned by evidence, and where this is absent or patchy we build data collection and further analysis into our submissions to Ministers.
We now speak about ‘what works’ and see research as one way to better understand how we frame the problems we are concerned with. In my current role as Head of Profession for Social Development, I support a group of 90 professional advisors who are all hungry for research that can support improved policy and its delivery. We also engage with the research community for learning and development, and hold widely attended lunchtime seminars. Engaging with research and researchers is now close to being part of DFID’s DNA. Despite all this, there are clearly still challenges.
Yes, conversations in DFID have moved on, but we still struggle with commissioning research that has real practical and operational significance for our work. The work we have commissioned over the years together with the ESRC certainly contains and displays elements of this collective journey. As challenges have arisen they have been tackled head on, we have ‘course corrected’ and refined research calls together to shape the conduct and delivery of research.
The vision of co-production, and aligning the incentives of the research and policy communities to improve collective working is still some way off in my view. I for one therefore welcome the opportunity that this conference brings, I look forward to hearing the lessons we can then learn, and being part of what will certainly be an interesting and productive set of discussions.
image credit: DFID/ September 2015 DFID #YouthSummit London, where hundreds of young people came together to raise their voices about policies that shape the future of their world.