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8 lessons on how to influence policy with evidence – from Oxfam’s experience

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How to use evidence to influence policy? Oxfam Great Britain has some experience in this area, and in a new paper by some of their team – “Using Evidence to Influence Policy: Oxfam’s Experience” – they lay out the lessons they’ve learned over the years. Here are 8 lessons we gleaned from their experience.  1. “One ...

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How to use evidence to influence policy? Oxfam Great Britain has some experience in this area, and in a new paper by some of their team – “Using Evidence to Influence Policy: Oxfam’s Experience” – they lay out the lessons they’ve learned over the years. Here are 8 lessons we gleaned from their experience. 

1. “One of the least effective ways to use research for influence is to write a paper and then ask ‘right, who do I send it to?’” Making sure that your published paper gets into the right hands is worthwhile, but it’s far more effective to design research with policy impact in mind. With impact evaluations, that often involves co-producing research questions with government or non-profit partners. But it can also involve asking questions that you know are relevant to current policy debates (and answering them before the debates have concluded). As economist Rachel Glennerster recently wrote, “Answer a really important hotly contested question well.”  


2. “Evidence is more likely to influence policymakers when presented to them during ‘windows of opportunity’, when they are motivated to pay attention to and solve a problem.” Dave recently published a working paper on school uniforms in Kenya, and in conversation with a local media expert, he learned that school uniforms are currently a real issue, so he co-authored an op-ed on the topic. But in most cases, the timing of your research paper may not coincide with an important policy issue. If we want policy impact, we have to track policy debates and insert the evidence when the topic is needed. This may involve recycling material later or using midline results when policy debates arise before we arrive at the end of the evaluation.  

3. “Policymakers in the middle of a political change or crisis, and who are seeking advice, are also far likelier to pick up the phone to researchers they already know than to make new contacts or start reading unsolicited reports.” Cultivating relationships with policymakers takes time, but it can yield significantly opportunities for policy impact – you’re the expert they call when they need evidence. It has an added benefit, as described by economist Amy Ando recently: “Many academics are trained to think about unidirectional public engagement. They do research and then tell people about it. Hopefully that has a positive impact, but telling takes time away from researching.  But great research is informed by engaging with people outside of our academic circles. We learn from people and policy makers (and people in other disciplines) what big new/unsolved problems are out there, and how institutions (formal and informal) really work.” (See #1 above.)  

4. “The type of research required to get something on the public agenda is different from research designed to influence specific pieces of legislation.” During the Ebola crisis in West Africa a few years ago, our office prepared some of the first numbers of the likely economic impact of the crisis outside of the affected countries. Headline numbers like that can be useful for pushing an issue into public debate. But the results of well-crafted impact evaluations can be more useful for improving the design of social programs.  

5. “The way in which evidence is coproduced, framed, timed and presented can be as important as its substance.” In most of our impact evaluations, we spend months or even years getting the design right, gathering the right data, making sure the analysis is responsible. But the substance of the research is just the beginning of policy impact. Oxfam has an extensive, impressive apparatus for this. It starts with a power analysis – and not the kind that economists and statisticians are used to thinking about. This looks at the power dynamics that are part of any hope for policy change: Who supports the change, who might block it, and who are the people who influence these actors?  

6. “Identify the actors with the power to change policy, and the actors able to influence policymakers.” Government ministers, their advisors, the broader public, and many actors in between have a role to play in influencing policy. Identify the actors most relevant to the policy change you want to see and seek to influence them. Remember that focusing on just one champion for your results in government isn’t ideal. Cabinet shuffles can happen frequently, and the minister of transport could easily end up in health (and vice versa). Mid- to high level civil servants are also prone to moving around a lot. Other key actors include companies, the voters, and “hidden and informal influencers.”  

7. “Most of Oxfam’s global campaigns start with a major piece of foundational research and campaign report which lays out basic analysis and policy recommendations which may then be followed by shorter briefings and/or media releases framed and timed to coincide with changing events and windows of opportunity.” Take your research, identify the policies you’d like to see it influence, then choose the tools (see here) based on the opportunities. You increase your odds of choosing the right message, medium, and messenger if you understand how the people you are trying to influence process information.   

8. Use a wide array of tools to communicate effectively. First, humanize complex issues. Second, if you have them, use a few “killer facts.” Third, use visualizations to increase accessibility.   Fourth, perfect your 30 second elevator pitch. And finally, “the messenger can be as important as the message.” It doesn’t always have to be the researcher who goes out and communicates results; key allies may be better placed to deliver the word.  The paper has lots of additional concrete examples. Check it out, then go forth and co-produce research questions with decisionmakers, “stay agile, engage with policymakers readily and continuously, respond quickly to events, test and learn from your strategies.” Easy, right?

David Evans
Development economist tweeting about education, health, social protection, impact evaluation, & African lit. Tukopamoja = We Are Together in Kiswahili

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