The LMIP as a case study of evidence-based policymaking
A unique feature of the approach to developing the skills planning mechanism adopted in the Labour Market Intelligence Partnership (LMIP) is the emphasis on the close working relations between the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) and the HSRC-led research consortium, based on consultation and engagement. Interactions and engagements were facilitated through structures (such as a project steering committee and technical theme committees) and mechanisms (such as theme-level business plans) that aimed to establish an active and productive research-policy nexus to support evidence use in policy formulation.
Accordingly, a project within the programme’s research communication portfolio aimed to investigate the understandings of evidence use in policymaking, as well as the operation and functioning of this research-policy nexus in the LMIP to draw out lessons that can be applied in the future. A set of interviews was conducted with senior government managers and research theme leaders. The following key findings emerged from this research:
1. ‘Evidence’ is a contested idea: Researchers viewed evidence through a scientific lens – it was the product of a rigorous, replicable methodology. Government officials took a wider interpretation of evidence and saw it as any information that would assist them in making decisions. Respondents noted that evidence was not utilised for a singular purpose. Rather, it could play a political, strategic and enlightenment function in influencing policy development.
2. Trust builds relationships that are critical for evidence-based policymaking: Strong, trust-based relations are a critical factor to ensure strong working relations between actors. Good working relations allow for a better flow of evidence between researchers and government managers. Clear lines of decision-making, open and frequent communication allow for trust-based relationships to emerge. Relationship mediation is a critical function for principals in this space.
3. Bureaucracy and research are odd bedfellows: The research world and the policy world operate at different speeds and with different (at times, incompatible) rules and regulations. The production of research-for-policy runs the risk of being bureaucratised, especially where the research required is linked to key performance activities of a government department. This can impact on the quality of the research produced, as well as hinder the process of evidence production.
4. Capacity deficits impinge on the operation on the nexus: Low capacity hampers the ability of Departments to engage with, critique and inform research evidence. It also reduces the quality of the interactions between researchers and government managers. Without good internal capacity, there is a shift in the power differential towards researchers, who are seen to be able to influence the policy process without sufficient critical push-back from government officials.
Interviewees suggested that strategies to improve the operation of the research-policy nexus should include:
1. ‘Research’ = ‘Politics’ = (Good) Evidence-Based Policymaking: Researchers must develop an understanding of the political environment in which evidence use takes place, in order to enhance the uptake of research. Similarly, policymakers need to sensitise themselves to the research process, understand the ‘culture’ of research and the distinct nature of producing information to support policy. Such understanding improves the prospects of evidence use in policymaking.
2. Building strong management capacity and lines of accountability: Research-policy interactions need strong management figures in both spheres to ensure the operational integrity of a project. Clear lines of authority and a perceptible hierarchy ensure greater clarity in decision-making processes.
3. Smaller, bi-lateral engagement forums are preferred: Closer, more personal engagementallows for more productive interactions. It also allows for relations of trust to be developed whilst permitting greater understanding and learning to occur, especially where capacity is lacking.
4. High quality of the science that addresses policymaker needs is what counts: high quality science that is well-communicated to government officials, functions to ensure that research is engaged with and utilised. High quality research that addresses policymaker needs is important to build strong relationships.