Connecting research with policy is never easy, particularly in low- and middle-income countries (LMIC) where resources are often limited. Sarah Morton conducted an impact assessment of a research programme in Peru to examine how research uptake and use contributed to policy and practice change. A number of recommendations arising from this case study can be applied to future research programmes looking to maximise impact. These range from the need to plan an “impact journey” including key outcomes and monitoring criteria at the outset; through the importance of local/national stakeholder mapping and regular communication; to the identification of key staff in knowledge-brokering roles who can understand and navigate tensions, and offer a more strategic approach to research impact.
Bridging the gap between research and policy is a continual challenge, especially in low- and middle-income countries (LMIC) where resources may be limited and governments have numerous pressing priorities. A recent impact assessment of UNICEF and partners’ Multi-Country Study on the Drivers of Violence Affecting Children examined how this research programme has affected national policy in Peru. This case study tested the Research Contribution Framework (RCF), developed to examine how research uptake and use “contributes” to policy and practice change, in a LMIC for the first time. Four recommendations from this case study, described below, could be applied in future research in order to maximise research impact.
1. Plan an impact strategy that addresses complexity from the start, and identifies key monitoring criteria, as well as risks and assumptions
At the outset of the research, partners should come together and establish an “impact journey”, asking questions about what impact the research will ideally have. The RCF could be used as a planning tool to do this: it uses an “Outcome Chain” which establishes a pathway to link research engagement activities with wider change (see Figure 1). Key questions to explore include:
- Who is the target group and how will they be engaged?
- What practices or behaviours do you expect to change?
- What final outcomes might this research contribute to?
Figure 1: The Research Contribution Framework Outcome Chain. This figure was originally published in the article “Progressing research impact assessment: A ‘contributions’ approach” and is published under a CC BY 4.0 license.
Researchers should also identify key risks and assumptions at each stage of the Outcome Chain – which could be done through a contextual analysis. For the Peruvian case study this was done using the ISM Model. This tool identifies factors which may influence behaviour in individual, social and material contexts, such as individual values, attitudes and beliefs, social norms; and, at the material level, existing infrastructure and current policies and legislation. Once the Outcome Chain is established, key indicators can be developed in order to monitor progress.
The research programme in Peru acknowledged its complexity at the start, which is particularly important when tackling a sensitive topic like violence against children. In this case that approach was an implicit way of working that has levered some key successes, and created a platform for future change. Research programmes like these could set out with a complexity-informed approach, with targets and reporting aims, in order to improve the impact of future research.
2. Include stakeholder mapping to identify key actors who will be essential to taking recommendations forward, and allow time to build partnerships with them
The time needed to develop trusting, effective partnerships should not be underestimated or undervalued. In order to maximise impact, national ownership of the work is essential. This was at the centre of UNICEF’s study. While this created time lags, the impact assessment found that it was critical part of the programme’s ability to affect policy. The national-international research partnerships contributed to academic credibility, and the partnership between the Peruvian Government, local and international academics, and UNICEF helped to move research and change forward. Time and flexibility should be considered at the planning stages of other research programmes.
3. Keep communication lines open from the start and throughout any project with partners and wider stakeholders
This can include progress updates, early reports from literature, or reflections on the process and doesn’t need to be focused solely on research outputs, which may take some time to emerge. While this may seem intuitive, the impact assessment in Peru highlighted how important this is in terms of sustainability. Keeping wider stakeholders engaged and involved could help increase their investment and interest in the work and help to move it forward.
4. Support and recognise key staff who act as knowledge-brokers
Developing explicit knowledge-brokering roles with clear understanding and support could help these key staff understand and navigate tensions, and offer a more strategic approach to research impact. The energy and vision needed to fulfil this role can be mentally and emotionally taxing, and both practical and emotional support should be provided in future research.
Linking research and policy is not a straightforward process. Indeed most research utilisation processes are complex, and often social research is addressing issues that have been characterised as complex. There are no simple solutions, and only through multi-actor approaches over longer timescales can change occur. The recommendations described here highlight practical solutions that acknowledge this challenge, and could be taken into consideration in the design and planning of future research in order to influence change and maximise impact at the policy level.
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About the author
Sarah Morton is an internationally recognised expert in working at the interface between social research, policy, and practice. She is Co-Founder of Outcome Focus and Co-Director (Knowledge Exchange) at the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships, where she has led pioneering work to facilitate ways in which research on families and relationships can have maximum impact. She is a Director of What Works Scotland, leading on the evidence to action stream that aims to increase ways that local authorities can use evidence to develop public services. She is also the Director (KERI) for the Usher Institute of Public Health and Informatics, and has carried out impact analyses for the UK Economic and Social Science Research Council, and UNICEF. Sarah has been an Associate Editor of the Journal Evidence and Policy since 2014, and KE advisor to UK-wide and overseas research programmes.