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Understanding the policy process: Reflections from the International Conference on Evidence-informed Policy Making

Future Health Systems


Picture a gathering of researchers and other stakeholders interested in evidence-informed policy-making. And to this gathering a question is posed: what are the three main roles of parliament? The ‘examiner’ distributes pieces of paper on which respondents should write the answers.

Well, that is the ‘exam’ which kick started the International Conference on Evidence-informed Policy Making at the end of February at Nigeria’s National Centre for Technology Management, which I attended.

While the task seemed simple, only one participant (who also happened to be a parliamentarian from Uganda) got all the three correct answers. That's legislation, oversight and representation, in case you wanted to test your own knowledge. I got two out of three having forgotten the obvious role of representation.

Such simple tasks remind us that sometimes we take many things for granted. For instance, up until the conference, a good number of participants -- including myself -- thought that in order to influence policy, members of parliament should be the main target of research evidence. But while members of parliament might be an ultimate target, they hardly have time and it is their clerks and assistants who do the lion's share of their research. Equally, I learned that furnishing the Parliament Library with research is invaluable. There may equally be a need to lobby the cabinet where the white papers are prepared before presentation to parliament.

I was in attendance at this conference as an observer on a mission to learn. As such, I took note of the above. When asked how he would want researchers to approach him with evidence, Ugandan legislator Obua Denis Hamson, who also chairs the Science and Technology Committee of Parliament, was concise in his response: “Probably the easiest way is to first give me a brief summary of your research findings. We can start from there.” What I got from this short and snappy reply was that researchers need to make the most out of research summaries and policy briefs.

The other thing I observed at this conference is that while 'evidence-informed policy making' has become a buzz word in international development, most of the work that has been done on this subject focuses on the 'supply side' (i.e. dissemination of research rather than the capacity to demand and use research from the policy side). Little has been done to understand both the incentives that drive policy makers to look for research information and their capacity to find and evaluate it. The only work around this area presented at the conference was done in Uganda with support from the UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. But going by presentations about ongoing research funded by the co-organizers of the conference (International Network for Availability of Scientific Publications), substantial evidence on the demand side will be forth coming.

And with the final words of INASP’s Dr Kirsty Newman came the take home message. Researchers, when approaching policy makers, should not only use their research but a wide range of related evidence to argue their case.