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I realize that the thesis of “we may need a new kind of champion” sounds like a rather anemic pitch for Guardians of the Galaxy. Moreover, it may lead to inflated hopes that I am going to propose that dance-offs be used more often to decide policy questions. While I don’t necessarily deny that this is a fantastic idea (and would certainly boost c-span viewership), I want to quickly dash hopes that this is the main premise of this post. Rather, I am curious why “we” believe that policy champions will be keen on promoting and using impact evaluation (and subsequent evidence syntheses of these) and to suggest that another range of actors, which I call “evidence” and “issue” champions may be more natural allies. There has been a recurring storyline in recent literature and musings on (impact) evaluation and policy- or decision-making:
- First, the aspiration: the general desire of researchers (and others) to see more evidence used in decision-making (let’s say both judgment and learning) related to aid and development so that scarce resources are allocated more wisely and/or so that more resources are brought to bear on the problem.
- Second, the dashed hopes: the realization that data and evidence currently play a limited role in decision-making (see, for example, the report, “What is the evidence on evidence-informed policy-making”, as well as here).
- Third, the new hope: the recognition that “policy champions” (also “policy entrepreneurs” and “policy opportunists”) may be a bridge between the two.
- Fourth, the new plan of attack: bring “policy champions” and other stakeholders in to the research process much earlier in order to get up-take of evaluation results into the debates and decisions. This even includes bringing policy champions (say, bureaucrats) on as research PIs.
There seems to be a sleight of hand at work in the above formulation, and it is somewhat worrying in terms of equipoise and the possible use of the range of results that can emerge from an impact evaluation study. Said another way, it seems potentially at odds with the idea that the answer to an evaluation is unknown at the start of the evaluation.
While I am not sure that “policy champion” has been precisely defined (and, indeed, this may be part of the problem), this has been done for the policy entrepreneur concept. So far as I can tell, the first time to articulate the entrepreneurial (brokering, middle-man, risk-taking) role in policy-making comes from David e. Price in 1971. The idea was repeated and refined in the 1980s and then became more commonplace in 1990s’ discussions of public policy— in part through the work of John Kingdon (there is also a formative and informative 1991 piece by Nancy Roberts and Paula King.) Much of the initial discussion, it seems, came out of studying US national and state-level congressional politics, but the ideas have been repeatedly shown to have merit in other deliberative settings. The initial work also focused on agenda-setting — which problems and solutions gain attention — but similar functions are also important in the adoption and implementation of policy solutions. Kingdon is fairly precise about the qualities of a policy entrepreneur — someone who has, as Kingdon calls it, a pet policy that they nurture over years, waiting for good moments of opportunity to suggest their policy as the solution to a pressing problem.
- First, such a person must have a “claim to a hearing” — that is, at least behind-the-scenes, people must respect and be willing to be listen to this person on this topic (especially if this person is not directly in a position with decision-making power).
- Second, such a person must have networks and connections as well as an ability to bargain and negotiate within them. This is a person that can broker ideas across diverse groups of people, can “soften-up” people to the entrepreneur’s preferred policy solution, etc.
- Third, such a person must have tenacity, persistence and a willingness to risk personal reputation and resources for a policy idea.
In Kingdon’s and others’ conception, a policy entrepreneur has to work at selling their idea over a long period of time (which is presumably why Weissert (1991) also introduced the idea of policy opportunists, who only start to champion ideas once they make it to the deliberating table and seem likely to move forward). In short, policy entrepreneurs (and through the sloppy use of near-synonyms, policy champions,) believe strongly in a policy solution and for some reason have put in time, effort, and reputation into moving the idea forward. Note the nebulous use of “some reason” — I have not found a definition that specifies that policy entrepreneurs must come to promote a policy through a particular impetus. Glory, gold, god, goodness, and (g’)evidence also seem to be viable motivators to fit the definition.
My question is: is this what we need to support the use of research (and, specifically impact evaluations and syntheses thereof) on decision-making? It is not clear to me that we do. Policy entrepreneurs are people already sold on a particular policy solution, whereas the question behind much evaluation work is ‘is this the best policy solution for this context?’ This requires recognizing the importance of contextual and policy, if not clinical, uncertainty about the answer in order for an evaluation to be worthwhile.
It seems to me, then, that what we (researchers and evaluators) actually need, are people deeply committed to one of two things: (1) the use of data and evidence, in general, (“evidence champions” or, at least loosely, technocrats) as an important tool in sound decision-making and/or (2) a particular issue or problem (“issue champions” — no doubt a sexier phrase is available). I’ll spend more time on the second.
An “issue champion,” for example, may be someone who has similar qualities of a policy entrepreneur but, rather than using claims to a hearing, a network, and tenacity to bring forward a policy solution, s/he uses these tools to bring attention to a problem — say, malaria mortality. This person feels that malaria is a problem that must be solved — and is open to finding the most (cost-) effective solution to the problem (or means to do a good job with implementing that solution). S/he is not, by contrast, someone already committed to believing that prevention, diagnostics, or treatment in any particular form or at any particular price is the best way forward until s/he has seen evidence of this in a relevant context. This is different from a “policy champion” who has, for example, been pushing for universal bednet coverage for the past 20 years. . This is not to say that you don’t want the bednet champion to be well aware of your study and to even have input into defining the research questions and approving the research design (in fact, this seems vital in lending credibility and usefulness to the results), but the way the study is structured will be important to whether the bednet champion is open to taking up the range of possible results from your study. If your question is, “Does approach A or approach B result in more efficient distribution of bednets?” then yes, both sets of results will be interesting to the bednet champion. But if the question is more of the type, “Are bednets the most cost-effective approach to addressing malaria mortality in our country?” then the bednet champion is likely to only show interest in trumpeting about one set of results: those that are significantly in favor of bednets as a solution to the malaria problem. The malaria champion (or general evidence enthusiast), on the other hand, may be more open to thinking about how to interpret and use the range of possible results from the study, which may also be mixed, inconclusive, or even negative (throughout this discussion, I recognize that malaria, like all problems in human and economic development, doesn’t have silver bullet answers and, therefore, “A or not-A”-type evaluation questions will only get us so far in getting the right mix of tools in the right place at the right time. i.e. the answer is likely neither that bednets do no good nor that they are the only thing needed to tackle malaria.)
The worrisomeness, then, of the policy champion is that they are already committed to a policy solution. Will they change their mind on the basis of one study? Probably not (nor, necessarily, should they, but a meta-analysis may not sway them, either.) However, insofar as “we” want decision-makers to learn about our evidence and to consider it in the deliberations, it may be issue, rather than policy, champions that are particularly important. They may make use of the results regardless of what they are. We cannot necessarily expect the same of the policy champion. Of course, a small army of evidence champions is also helpful. I do want to stress that it is critical to have policy champions and other stakeholders involved early in the research-design process so that the right questions can be asked and the politically and contextually salient outcomes and magnitudes are considered. But as an ally in the evaluation process and, say, a potential PI on an evaluation, it seems that the issue champions are the folks likely to stick with it. And, yes, issue champions should probably have some moves ready, in case of a dance-off (as there will always be factors beyond evidence and data influencing decisions).
This article is published in collaboration with The World Bank’s People, Spaces and Deliberation Blog. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.
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Author: Heather Lanthorn is currently completing her SD in Global Health and Population and also working as an Evaluation Specialist at the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation.
Image: A clinic support staff takes blood sample from a child at a clinic. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye.
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