Researchers trying to use the knowledge they’ve produced to inform public policy are often warned of the importance of context to policy decisions. But what exactly does “context” mean? Leandro Echt introduces a new framework that can help researchers develop a better understanding of the various different contexts operating within institutions, and critically identify those points where policy change is most possible.

The importance of context is often emphasised in conversations about the interaction between research and policy. “Context matters”, we hear again and again, and read here and there. But how do we move beyond generic statements and explain how context matters specifically? Politics & Ideas and the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP) embarked on an effort to unpack this recurring statement by conducting knowledge systematisation work, combining a literature review with in-depth interviews with 48 experts and policymakers, mostly in developing countries.

In a nutshell, context is the complex environment that influences how policy decisions take place as the result of simultaneous interactions between various stakeholders. But to be allowed to see how knowledge is actually incorporated in policy decisions and understand the potential to promote better practices, we will apply our lens to government institutions. We decided to focus on governmental institutions for three reasons:

  1. The macro-contextual approach, which has dominated the existing (though limited) literature on context, focuses largely on factors usually beyond the control or influence of those trying to promote the use of knowledge in policy (such as the extent of political freedom, media freedom, etc.). Instead, our intention was to identify potential areas of actual change for different types of interventions.
  2. We believe governmental institutions constitute the most direct environment where practices to promote the use of knowledge in policy take place. This is where decisions about policies are discussed and, most importantly, where they are implemented.
  3. The role of institutions in enabling systemic change has also been widely recognised in development-related projects. Focusing at the institutional level has potential to contribute to change because of the significant role played by institutions in any system.

A second decision made was to embrace politics in the approach to the policymaking process. Our study stressed the need to avoid approaching evidence-informed policy discussions as simply technocratic or resource challenges. The politics involved in any institution-strengthening process must be established as a matter of priority for any change agenda.

A comprehensive conceptual framework

The result of this effort is a comprehensive conceptual framework that, far from establishing linear recipes to promote the use of evidence in policymaking, uses a systemic approach and embraces the complexity of the policymaking process. The framework contains six analytical dimensions which allow users to identify entry points to understand how knowledge is used and strategic decisions are made in governmental institutions:

  1. Macro-context: the overarching forces at the national level that establish the “bigger picture” in which policy is made.
  2. Intra- and inter-relationships with state and non-state agents: the internal relationships between the public institution and other related government agencies and the interaction with relevant users and producers of knowledge.
  3. Culture: the set of shared basic assumptions learned by a group.
  4. Organisational capacity: the ability of an organisation to use its resources (human and legal) to perform.
  5. Management and processes: ongoing processes and policies, and how routine decisions are made.
  6. Core resources: including budget, time, infrastructure, and technology.

Furthermore, each dimension breaks down into several critical sub-dimensions, shown in the figure below. These dimensions and sub-dimensions can be interactively explored at Politics & Ideas.

Figure 1: Knowledge Into Policy: A Framework to Understand Context. (Source: Politics and Ideas and INASP, 2016)

Our framework aims to help users better understand and assess the contexts in which they operate in order to detect where the potential for change is greatest, as well as where the most significant barriers are. Indeed, we have begun work with public agencies in developing countries (in Peru and Ghana) to assess their existing capacity to produce and use knowledge in policy decisions, by applying this framework. By simultaneously zooming out of (to see the big picture) and zooming in (for specific features) on institutional practices, and by using the six dimensions, we help public agencies identify challenges and opportunities for the production and use of knowledge, and prioritise change where it is more feasible. This assessment exercise is conducted through interviews, meetings with key civil servants in the public agencies, workshops with staff and external stakeholders (from both sister public organisations and other research institutions such as universities, think tanks, NGOs, and international organisations), and other experimental approaches that may help in understanding what underpins organisational practices. This process leads to the validation of a change plan.

While embracing the complexity of public institutions is an exciting learning experience, it also helps us to identify challenges of our approach, specifically:

  • The need for more accurate explanations of how knowledge is understood, and how it relates to other concepts such as information, data, or evidence.
  • The need to break down some of the current dimensions – “intra- and inter-relationships with state and non-state agents”, for example – to offer greater clarity on the stakeholders involved in the process.
  • The need to bring in other policymakers with vast experience in promoting the use of knowledge in their agencies and who have already faced and overcome similar challenges. These people can provide vital support.

This is an ongoing effort and so we expect more challenges, as well as inspirational lessons, to emerge. Overall, the framework serves as a good mechanism to enter into institutional practices through the six dimensions, and identify critical areas for improvement.

Do our ideas and experience resonate with yours? Would this framework be helpful in your efforts to bring about research-based changes in policy organisations? We welcome any experience or comment that can help to improve our understanding and better support public organisations in making knowledge-based decisions.

To find out more:

Further information is available from the following resources:

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

About the author

Leandro Echt is the General Coordinator of Politics & Ideas, a joint initiative of researchers and practitioners to co-produce and share knowledge linking ideas and politics in developing countries. He is also Coordinator at On Think Tanks, the main source of ideas, resources, and advice for think tanks worldwide. He engages with think tanks, NGOs, and public agencies interested in linking evidence with public decisions, through a mix of capacity-building, technical assistance and research initiatives. He is Argentinean, currently based in Florida, United States. He tweets @LeandroEcht.

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