Musings on research, international development and other stuff

It’s complicated… or is it?


If you’ve ever seen a talk by the a member of the Research and Policy in Development team you may well have seen their rather marvellous slide (on the right) illustrating the policy making process. It starts with a standard diagram of the cyclical policy making process (agenda setting leads to policy formulation etc etc) and then each time the speaker clicks a new arrow appears indicating the linkages between stages and various policy making actors. What’s great about it is that as the speaker continues to speak, the arrows continue to appear until the initial diagram is completely obscured by a tangled web of interactions. I think it is a perfect illustration of the potential complexity of policy making processes that provides the rationale for one of the cental tenets of the rapid approach – because policy making processes can work in so many different ways, it is vital that you understand the particular context that you are working in.

However, unfortunately, I think this potential complexity is sometimes used to justify another approach – inaction! On a number of occassions I have heard people involved in evidence-informed policy or policy influence projects assert that they cannot/will not understand the policy making context because ‘its too complicated/complex’. I think this is misssing the point. It is true that there are many different ways in which policy might be made but they don’t all exist in any one context and in fact sometimes when you look into the way in which policy is made on a given topic, in a given place, it is remarkably simple.

For example, I know the guy who more or less single handedly wrote the science and technology monitoring policy of an entire country. He was in charge of the parastatal organisation which handles science issues and so, with input from his staff and advisors, he wrote it before feeding it up to relevant minister who approved it. Similarly, I know a woman who wrote a parliamentary committe report scrutinising climate change policy in her country. She was the parliamentary researcher assigned to the committee and, since the MPs did not have the time or expertise to write such reports, she wrote it and it was later signed off with minor changes by the MPs. As an aside, in both these cases the person in question had the necessary skills to find, synthesise and use the necessary research evidence and thus the policies were evidence-informed but unfortunately this is not always the case. But anyway, these cases illustrate that some policy making processes are neither complicated nor complex.

So how do you understand the policy making process in your context? Well for starters, you need to know the basics – you have no right to complain that policy makers don’t understand the basics of research if you don’t understand the basics of policy making! Do you understand what the basic functions of a parliament are (clue: there are three)? What about the functions of government or the civil service? What is the difference between a parliamentary and a presidential systems of government (n.b. they both have parliaments so its not that!) and which system does your country have? These were some of the questions which we used in an opening ‘quiz’ at the International Conference on Evidence-Informed Policy Making and suprisingly few people got the right answers. If you are struggling too, I strongly recommend some Wikipedia browsing!

Once you’ve mastered the basics you are ready to talk to someone in the system (without risking looking stupid!). My suggestion is to find an opportunity to speak to a member of the civil service or a member of parliamentary staff – they are generally great repositories of information on how the system works – and find out who actually makes policy (and here you will need to be clear on what you mean by policy) in the area you are interested in.

Please note that none of the above is meant to criticise the great work on complexity, adaptive systems and development (see for example this excellent series of three blogs by Owen Barder). Starting to ask questions about how policy is made will just be the start of your investigative work and I am not saying it will necessarily be easy or even possible to fully understand the system. You might find it is complicated. You might even find it is complex. But the point is that there are things you can find out and getting even some information on the context will dramatically improve the success of any intervention.


2 thoughts on “It’s complicated… or is it?

  1. Dear Kirsty,

    Could not agree more. While this whole complexity debate is hugely enriching our way of thinking about development and stimulating all kinds of innovations, there is a bit of a downside that it equally seems to lead to – at least some people – drawing the conclusion it is not worthwhile to invest in trying to understand and making sense. Just wrote a blog on this in our (UNDP) Voices of Eurasia, taking data and Captain Kirk (sorry Picard..) as an entry:


  2. Pingback: Recent reading – science, careers, gender, policy and a look forward « Science Policy Talking Post

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