Knowledge Brokering Organisations (KBOs) play an important role in the interface between research and policy. Drawing on a study of comparable international organisations, Eleanor MacKillop, James Downe and Hannah Durrant outline how they perceive their position and role as shapers and producers of evidence for policy.
The rise of Knowledge Brokering Organisations (KBOs) has changed how decision-makers access evidence. Whereas in the past, decision-makers might have relied on internal research services, or favoured academics providing them with the latest research, governments across the world have invested in new organisations that can synthesise existing evidence of ‘what works’.
What are Knowledge Brokering Organisations?
KBOs describe themselves as being different from other organisations in the evidence-policy field such as think tanks, and three characteristics are key:
- Evidence is central to their work: Evidence is present in their mission, theory of change and practices. It is central to their identity.
- They adopt structures, practices and relationships to facilitate knowledge brokering: They undertake activities such as evidence syntheses, coordinate roundtables bringing decision-makers and researchers together, and produce policy briefings. They cultivate relationships between the worlds of decision-making and research.
- They have strong links to government: most are separate from government, but can have close relationships through funding arrangements, performance assessments, and commissioning of evidence outputs.
How have they emerged in different countries and policy-making systems?
KBOs have emerged in countries with different political and policy systems. In all those countries, governments claim a commitment to ‘evidence-based policy-making’ and have invested funding to develop their capacity to use evidence, be that within government itself (for politicians and civil servants) and/or for practitioners such as teachers, doctors.
Explaining their emergence, our interviewees described various drivers, such as a charismatic individual inside or outside government pushing for the need for a new KBO, and the decreasing internal capacity of government and other decision-makers to fill this evidence function. Others spoke of KBOs being created to show that policy-makers cared about an issue and were aware of the lack of good quality evidence in that area.
UK What Works Centres (WWCs) and how they compare to KBOs in other countries?
Since the late 2010s, the UK government has invested in What Works Centres, a network of organisations created outside of government that synthesise and, in some cases, generate new evidence on ‘wicked issues’, e.g., homelessness, ageing, early years. There are currently thirteen WWCs and they are a diverse group. Most focus on practice rather than policy. Some have a geographical target (e.g., Wales Centre for Public Policy) and others focus on a particular profession (e.g., the newly formed Foundations which focuses on children and families). Similar organisations have been set up in the United States (e.g., What Works Clearinghouse for education), but the UK’s approach is the most wide-ranging government initiative in terms of the number of issues covered and public service spending (£20 billion worth).
Fig.1: UK What Works Centres as of 2022 (Source: UK Cabinet Office website)
Governments have invested in similar endeavours. There are one-stop shops for policy-makers e.g., the Africa Centre for Evidence, and centres focused on single issues or policy areas such as the health-related Sax Institute in Australia or the Mexican National Council for the Evaluation for Social Development Policy (CONEVAL).
Some KBOs are ‘demand-led’, working on policy challenges requested by government. Others are ‘supply-led’, conducting evidence synthesis that they broker to decision-makers. Their closeness to government is partially influenced by whether and how government funds them (e.g., short term grants, project-based funding) and the relationships between that KBO and government (e.g., regular meetings to develop new work, or ad hoc meetings to push new evidence products).
The different roles of KBOs: advocacy and objectivity
Our interviews show that some KBOs see their role as providing objectivity to policy deliberation via evidence. They invest resources in producing rigorous evidence reviews and plugging gaps in knowledge by commissioning new research.
At the same time, they talk about their role as ‘problem framer’ or advocate, that attempts to shape and/or influence policy. For instance, KBOs are often asked by decision-makers to make recommendations (which could be seen as anathema to their objectivity) and steer them towards particular interventions that they know ‘worked’. One interviewee described the agency of some UK What Works Centres in funnelling evidence into the policy and practice process:
“It is impossible to not bring some prior views and opinions on what [policy/practice area] is … you are making judgements about how you interpret the evidence that you pull out, and you are bringing your own opinion into that.”
How KBOs view knowledge: evidence versus ideas
How different is evidence from ideas? Some might see this as a rhetorical distinction only, but for KBOs evidence and ideas are different. KBOs argued that they provide evidence for policy which contrasts with other organisations (e.g., think tanks) that offer ideas and campaign for change. WWCs described themselves and were seen by external stakeholders as independent ‘even though [they are] funded by government’. From the government’s perspective, the evidence produced by KBOs is not ‘official’ and so they can accord it as much or as little significance as they wish.
The practices of KBOs: credible versus selective evidence
The KBOs that we spoke to drew on the personal credibility of their staff (e.g., ex-senior civil servant or academic) and the relationships that they have with the academic community to provide credibility to the evidence that they broker.
KBOs spend much of their resources bridging the boundary between policy/practice and evidence, undertaking reviews to summarise the existing evidence on a question and hiring staff with different backgrounds to break into different networks in both communities.
But KBOs also play a key role in filtering what ends up constituting the evidence on a topic. In that way, they help to reduce uncertainty for decision-makers and simplify their day-to-day work. By conferring a certain authority on the evidence that they present, KBOs allow decision-makers to privilege evidence that they receive from KBOs if they wish.
The politics of KBOs
The power dynamics surrounding the emergence and work of KBOs is often overlooked. Our interviewees talked of the difficult politics that they had to navigate, for instance by being asked to retrofit the evidence to a political decision already made:
“We’d get [from the ministry] ‘you have some comments on this thing we’re planning to announce next week?’ and it’d be ‘we’re going to roll out X intervention’ that we knew had no evidence behind it, it just hadn’t been tested.”
KBOs were highly aware of the tension resulting from their closeness to government and whether that impacted their ability to be objective. They talked about the difficult ‘dance’ of providing evidence that would be listened to by decision-makers while also being able to be independent.
Rather than a single blueprint, KBOs have emerged in different parts of the world and policy areas to respond to different demands from decision-makers, with decision-makers often influencing what those aspects look like. Whether KBOs ‘work’ in providing decision-makers with access to knowledge of ‘what works’ remains to be evaluated, and many KBOs are undertaking such impact evaluations. KBOs have become part of the evidence-policy landscape in various countries but, as we have discussed, they often depend on political support for their influence or even, in some cases, survival (e.g., The Mowat Centre was abolished by a new government). However, other factors come into play in helping their longevity such as their relevance and effectiveness in addressing the issues that they have been set up to help with (e.g., merger of two UK WWCs Early Intervention Foundation and What Works Children Social Care). Furthermore, many UK WWCs have been going for at least 5-10 years, with the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) being over 20 years old. The ‘big picture’ is one of a significant increase in investment in knowledge mobilisation ‘infrastructure’ (including KBOs) by other actors than government, for instance research funders such as the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) in recent years – e.g., WWCs, Local Policy Innovation Partnerships (LPIPs), Policy Fellowships – as well as by universities such as with the Universities Policy Engagement Network.
This post draws on the authors’ article, Making sense of knowledge-brokering organisations: boundary organisations or policy entrepreneurs? published in Science and Public Policy.
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