May 25, 2023

What’s the next step in encouraging research-informed policy?

It should go without saying that high quality research is a key foundation of Pat Conroy’s aspiration for DFAT to be ‘a world class development agency’. If the Andrew Leigh view of the world is anything to go by, we’re witnessing an APS step up on evidence based decision-making that DFAT would be mad to ignore.

This said, we know there’s much more to be done – including harnessing the great research and analysis within the broader development ecosystem.

So as the new development policy readies release and we look to implementation and best practice, we wanted to know what the next step would be to encourage better research-informed policy. Here’s what the experts had to say.

Ujjwal Krishna
Specialist Doctoral Research Scholar, La Trobe University’s Developmental Leadership Program

Whenever time-poor bureaucrats use research to inform policy and programming, they often need to take short-cuts. Those seeking research are constrained by the networks that influence them, political considerations, their implicit biases, and dominant ideas emerging from Western institutions and thinkers. And while impact-focused researchers may contextualise and frame their findings strategically, the incentive structures of academics working in universities, (i.e., long research timelines and the production of journal articles), are misaligned with the needs of policymakers.

Australia’s new development policy is a crucial opportunity for DFAT to rebuild its capacity to engage with research and evidence. Consultations have focused on promoting ‘effectiveness and learning’, while Minister Conroy has remarked that he wants ‘AusAID to take over DFAT’. Hiring and promoting development expertise should be complemented by improving research accessibility and, more importantly, re-thinking who DFAT listens to.

There is a need to re-educate Australians more generally with Pacific literacy, and for DFAT to create mutual mechanisms with Pacific stakeholders to not just assess impact and quality, but help plan, inform, and design better development assistance. Creating a department-wide knowledge repository of commissioned and external research may enable effective dissemination of findings internally and help make academic research more accessible and relevant to policymaking. Involving Pacific researchers and experts in building this comprehensive resource, which is being done in the gender space, would amplify local research that is either overlooked, or is filtered through a Western lens before reaching decision-makers.

As a Specialist Doctoral Research Scholar for La Trobe’s DLP, Ujjwal never fails to impress us with his knowledge of research uptake. He’s previously undertaken projects for the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, Government of India and even dabbled in the space industry. At the Lab, we enjoy his focus on the influence of research and politics on development policy, warm demeanour, and openness in sharing what he knows.

Bridi Rice
CEO, Development Intelligence Lab

A world class development agency needs its people to know what’s working, what’s not, and what changes are on the horizon. It’s time to allocate the leadership and funding to find out.

As research and analysis institutions, we must:

1. Let go of the assumption that more or better research is the sole answer – former ODE has been there before.

2. Recognise home-truths about our busy bureaucrats – few read academic journals, their days involve decisions weighing up evidence alongside resource constraints, policy, and political choices.

3. Respect different types of knowledge that a high-performing development program needs – yes, academic research is essential for deep understanding. But just as important is connecting policymakers to other forms of insights (what we call ‘intelligence’) from people on the ground, our development practitioners delivering support, and other unusual sources of ideas.

As for the Department, I’d say let’s be honest:

1. You don’t have all the answers and that’s ok. Our development dollar is delivered by people outside your building: local organisations, think tanks, consultancies, NGOs, research institutes, companies and multi-laterals. Respect them with your time, incentivise them to break ground, and create policy-relevant knowledge whenever you can.

2. Your challenge here is less about research, more about getting your leaders to demand better evidence and establishing robust feedback loops with people whose insights you need. This is a cultural reset that must start from the top, and capability built from the bottom up.

3. Your next step should be to launch a knowledge agenda alongside the new development policy – a statement that articulates priority areas of interest for Australian development in the region and allocates a budget to enable analysis, connections to your stakeholders and innovation.

Bridi was the 2021 Fulbright Scholar in not-for-profit leadership and her project was ‘modelling think tanks of the future’. She is an international development expert with experience in both the public and private sectors at CSIS, ACFID, Australia’s Attorney-General’s Department and EY. The team at the Lab love Bridi’s commitment to injecting diverse insights into national policy debates and fostering an Australian development ecosystem that is rich with unusual collaborations and debate. She’s known by her peers for expertly gathering different perspectives on issues and working in collaboration to tackle development challenges that lie ahead.

Dr Patrick Kilby
Associate Professor, Australian National University

The suggestion that aid policy is not informed by research at one level is absurd: any human enquiry can be counted as research so then it becomes a truism that aid policy is informed by research. But the question goes a little deeper, and is really about whether aid policy is informed by disinterested (that is, removed from personal biases or preconceived ideas) research, which is another level.

There have been and will be many enquiries into the aid program, with one due to report in the next little while. All of these consists of ‘people of note’ and are informed by submissions from the public and papers prepared by public servants. All of these reflect the ‘interests’ of those concerned and these interests are weighed up and presented to government who provide an overlay of their own interests. There is no particular weighting given to the views of the aid recipient.

Academic research and some, but not all, think tanks claim to be disinterested but at least it is peer reviewed by people who generally don’t have an identifiable interest, beyond that of their discipline: economists will always favour economic solutions, and so on. This level of disinterest enables people to be able to step back from the day-to-day politics of a situation and assess what is likely to work in the interests of those most directly affected, which could be local community or a recipient government.

The question is how to do this: the obvious way is do commissioned original research which DFAT has done in the past, but the other less expensive way is to encourage meta-studies or literature reviews that explore current thinking and evidence on a particular policy question. There is still a danger of looking for answers you want to find (a confirmation bias), but it is step in the right direction.

Patrick is an Associate Professor at ANU and Editor in Chief of the Journal of Development Practice. His experience in the development and aid industry speaks for itself with four sole-authored books and a Fullbright Senior Scholars Fellowship at Kansas State University in 2018, to name just a few of his achievements. At the Lab, we value Patrick’s commitment to interdisciplinary research and upskilling the next generation of development professionals in his work at the ANU.

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