‘Co-producing’ comparative policy research: how far should we go to secure policy impact?

Two recent articles explore the role of academics in the ‘co-production’ of policy and/or knowledge.

Both papers suggest (I think) that academic engagement in the ‘real world’ is highly valuable, and that we should not pretend that we can remain aloof from politics when producing new knowledge (research production is political even if it is not overtly party political). They also suggest that it is fraught with difficulty and, perhaps, an often-thankless task with no guarantee of professional or policy payoffs (intrinsic motivation still trumps extrinsic motivation).

So, what should we do?

I plan to experiment a little bit while conducting some new research over the next 4 years. For example, I am part of a new project called IMAJINE, and plan to speak with policymakers, from the start to the end, about what they want from the research and how they’ll use it. My working assumption is that it will help boost the academic value and policy relevance of the research.

I have mocked up a paper abstract to describe this kind of work:

In this paper, we use policy theory to explain why the ‘co-production’ of comparative research with policymakers makes it more policy relevant: it allows researchers to frame their policy analysis with reference to the ways in which policymakers frame policy problems; and, it helps them identify which policymaking venues matter, and the rules of engagement within them.  In other words, theoretically-informed researchers can, to some extent, emulate the strategies of interest groups when they work out ‘where the action is’ and how to adapt to policy agendas to maximise their influence. Successful groups identify their audience and work out what it wants, rather than present their own fixed views to anyone who will listen.

Yet, when described so provocatively, our argument raises several practical and ethical dilemmas about the role of academic research. In abstract discussions, they include questions such as: should you engage this much with politics and policymakers, or maintain a critical distance; and, if you engage, should you simply reflect or seek to influence the policy agenda? In practice, such binary choices are artificial, prompting us to explore how to manage our engagement in politics and reflect on our potential influence.

We explore these issues with reference to a new Horizon 2020 funded project IMAJINE, which includes a work package – led by Cairney – on the use of evidence and learning from the many ways in which EU, national, and regional policymakers have tried to reduce territorial inequalities.

So, in the paper we (my future research partner and I), would:

  • Outline the payoffs to this engage-early approach. Early engagement will inform the research questions you ask, how you ask them, and how you ‘frame’ the results. It should also help produce more academic publications (which is still the key consideration for many academics), partly because this early approach will help us speak with some authority about policy and policymaking in many countries.
  • Describe the complications of engaging with different policymakers in many ‘venues’ in different countries: you would expect very different questions to arise, and perhaps struggle to manage competing audience demands.
  • Raise practical questions about the research audience, including: should we interview key advocacy groups and private sources of funding for applied research, as well as policymakers, when refining questions? I ask this question partly because it can be more effective to communicate evidence via policy influencers rather than try to engage directly with policymakers.
  • Raise ethical questions, including: what if policymaker interviewees want the ‘wrong’ questions answered? What if they are only interested in policy solutions that we think are misguided, either because the evidence-base is limited (and yet they seek a magic bullet) or their aims are based primarily on ideology (an allegedly typical dilemma regards left-wing academics providing research for right-wing governments)?

Overall, you can see the potential problems: you ‘enter’ the political arena to find that it is highly political! You find that policymakers are mostly interested in (what you believe are) ineffective or inappropriate solutions and/ or they think about the problem in ways that make you, say, uncomfortable. So, should you engage in a critical way, risking exclusion from the ‘coproduction’ of policy, or in a pragmatic way, to ‘coproduce’ knowledge and maximise your chances of their impact in government?

The case study of territorial inequalities is a key source of such dilemmas …

…partly because it is difficult to tell how policymakers define and want to solve such policy problems. When defining ‘territorial inequalities’, they can refer broadly to geographical spread, such as within the EU Member States, or even within regions of states. They can focus on economic inequalities, inequalities linked strongly to gender, race or ethnicity, mental health, disability, and/ or inequalities spread across generations. They can focus on indicators of inequalities in areas such as health and education outcomes, housing tenure and quality, transport, and engagement with social work and criminal justice. While policymakers might want to address all such issues, they also prioritise the problems they want to solve and the policy instruments they are prepared to use.

When considering solutions, they can choose from three basic categories:

  1. Tax and spending to redistribute income and wealth, perhaps treating economic inequalities as the source of most others (such as health and education inequalities).
  2. The provision of public services to help mitigate the effects of economic and other inequalities (such as free healthcare and education, and public transport in urban and rural areas).
  3. The adoption of ‘prevention’ strategies to engage as early as possible in people’s lives, on the assumption that key inequalities are well-established by the time children are three years old.

Based on my previous work with Emily St Denny, I’d expect that many governments express a high commitment to reduce inequalities – and it is often sincere – but without wanting to use tax/ spending as the primary means, and faced with limited evidence on the effectiveness of public services and prevention. Or, many will prefer to identify ‘evidence-based’ solutions for individuals rather than to address ‘structural’ factors linked to factors such as gender, ethnicity, and class. This is when the production and use of evidence becomes overtly ‘political’, because at the heart of many of these discussions is the extent to which individuals or their environments are to blame for unequal outcomes, and if richer regions should compensate poorer regions.

‘The evidence’ will not ‘win the day’ in such debates. Rather, the choice will be between, for example: (a) pragmatism, to frame evidence to contribute to well-established beliefs, about policy problems and solutions, held by the dominant actors in each political system; and, (b) critical distance, to produce what you feel to be the best evidence generated in the right way, and challenge policymakers to explain why they won’t use it. I suspect that (a) is more effective, but (b) better reflects what most academics thought they were signing up to.

For more on IMAJINE, see New EU study looks at gap between rich and poor and The theory and practice of evidence-based policy transfer: can we learn how to reduce territorial inequalities?

For more on evidence/ policy dilemmas, see Kathryn Oliver and I have just published an article on the relationship between evidence and policy


1 Comment

Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), IMAJINE, public policy

One response to “‘Co-producing’ comparative policy research: how far should we go to secure policy impact?

  1. Pingback: We are recruiting three lecturers in Politics at the University of Stirling | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

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