In the second article of this series we put forward seven principles for policy relevant research identified in existing literature and through practice. In this article we focus on the second principle: a policy relevant research agenda should be internally and externally validated.
Once one has defined the main components of the agenda, analysed the context, and framed the agenda, the challenge is: how do we actually go about implementing it? How do we collect information and knowledge to create a proper analysis of the context so that we can keep policy influence in the loop? Also, how do we receive and process inputs from both internal and external stakeholders?
The process of developing a policy relevant research agenda is an endeavor that requires both internal organisation and planning and external engagement with others who are key for its work. Without connecting our initial ideas and interests with the opinions and needs of others, the research agenda might become only a wish-list, disconnected from reality, lacking social and political relevance. The figure below summarises the key aspects of this process that will be detailed in the following subsections.
The policy relevant research process
The cycle of developing a research agenda benefits from four general steps: 1) an internal process of brainstorming and discussions, 2) the engagement with relevant stakeholders 3) the inclusion and arbitrage of the suggestions received and 4) communicating the agenda.
The process of internal discussion might occur at two different levels: within each team and also institutionally, including the board. Depending on each think tank’s functioning it will be important to decide on how these levels interact but it is important to maintain an alignment between the board and the staff. Furthermore, it will be ideal to identify key spaces already institutionalised in the think tank that can also be used to discuss the research agenda, such as the annual planning process so as not to demand too much extra energy from the organisation and its staff.
Deciding on levels and methods of engagement with stakeholders
Within the internal discussion, there must be an agreement about which other external stakeholders should also be engaged, including how to do it. It is advisable that various staff members are involved in defining this (though different areas could make different decisions), given that each one might have diverse expertise and connections with key stakeholders.
Possible stakeholders include other researchers and experts, policymakers, and representatives of civil society, among others. But beyond their nominal labels, what is critical is to understand the roles they play in a policy process and what research can bring into their table. Generally, we can categorise the different stakeholders in four groups: decision-makers, advisors, external proponents or supporters, and veto players.
But before approaching some of the most critical stakeholders about your research topics, it is important to also clarify, within the think tank, what level of engagement is desired and what is the objective of the engagement. Do you want to just gain an understanding of their priorities? Do you want to develop partnerships? What can the stakeholders expect from relating to you? Based on the work of Van de Ven on engaged scholarship, here we present four levels of engagement as an initial guideline:
- Direct or indirect consultation: In some policy contexts, think tanks cannot approach all their stakeholders for direct involvement. This is the case of settings where governments are not open to independent voices. It could also be difficult for newer think tanks to get active participation of others in the development of a research agenda. In this case, the understanding of needs and priorities might have to be done indirectly. For example, through more general interviews, an analysis of newspapers articles and interviews of policymakers or review of public documents. Of course, not having a direct contact with policymakers may be an important drawback. However, it is important to note that, even in the toughest environments creative strategies can be set in place to understand the positions of other stakeholders and including them in the research agenda.
- Advisory: In this model, a think tank invites some key stakeholders to formally or informally inform the research agenda. In this model, the think tank maintains full control of the agenda and can take up, or not, the comments and suggestions from the advisors. This model is usually very detached, with occasional participations (i.e workshops, year or bi-annual conferences, ad hoc meetings, etc). It might not lead to long term relationships but it might get you a wider range of interested participants. In this model, the advisors are not necessarily direct beneficiaries of the research, but can guide with their expertise.
- Exchange: In this form of engagement, the stakeholders are clearly the users of the research. The engagement is different than that of the advisor because the stakeholders may be directly affected by the research. This is particularly the case of research that is evaluative or action research. In the case of the evaluation, the researcher proposes the evaluation a policy which in place, and this might require direct participation of those involved. In the case of action research, a researcher becomes part of an organisation to improve it from within. In both these cases, the researcher maintains an outsider’s perspective but needs insider access to information and processes. Unlike the advisory model, in this case, the other stakeholders can be very affected by the research and may also have a strong influence on the research process. Ideally, however, the researcher maintains a high level of independence from the users.
- Collaboration: In a collaborative engagement, the partner policy institution, NGO or business, holds equal stakes in the project. In this case, the research is the result of an explicit negotiation of priorities and the outcomes are shared between the think tank and the partners. The role of the partners is much more intensive and may even divert the course of a project from what the think tank expected in the beginning. In the case where the partner is a public institution, the results of a project will be affected by its public positioning. On the other hand, their in-depth participation may result in greater impact since the outcomes might be more like to be implemented or applied by the partner. This higher possibility of impact may affect the think tank’s full ownership of the research.
The process of validating your research agenda can also benefit from a reflection on the different approaches that can be taken to receive the other’s comments; that is, the method of engagement, which should also be aligned with the level of engagement that has been chosen.