IKM Working Paper: Literature review of policy-making as discourse

The fifth IKM Emergent Working Paper Policy-making as discourse: a review of recent knowledge-to-policy literature, written by Harry Jones of Research in Policy and Development (RAPID) and published with the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), is online from today. It has been published to coincide with the event Knowledge, policy and power held at ODI at the same time.

This working paper explores the current understanding of the link between knowledge and policy in development. The issue is of relevance for researchers as it will help them make the most of their work and facilitate the changes they would like to see in policy; for policymakers, it will contribute to a better understanding of the link between knowledge and policy which will in turn help to inform the policy design and implementation process and facilitate a more effective uptake of new knowledge in their work; and for intermediaries who are looking to strengthen the link between knowledge and policy this paper should provide a theoretical overview of the knowledge-policy landscape and some potential avenues for work.
There is a great variety of schools of thought focusing on different aspects of the link between knowledge and policy. Within these diverse fields three paradigms emerge as common sets of basic ideas that frame different approaches to the field:
1) Rational: This models the link between knowledge and policy as essentially a knowledge-driven relationship.  Knowledge is seen as providing instrumentally useful and essentially ‘neutral’ inputs that serve to improve policy, and policy-making works in ‘problem-solving’ mode, according to logic and reason.
2) Pluralism and opportunism: This paradigm challenges assumptions about the rationality of the policy process, seeing it as involving pragmatic decisions taken based on multiple factors in the face of uncertainty. The incorporation of knowledge involves often erratic and opportunistic processes, and explicit efforts of various actors. This view retains assumptions that the production of knowledge and its incorporation in policy is generally ‘good’.
3) Politics and legitimisation: This viewpoint argues that power is infused throughout the knowledge process, from generation to uptake. Knowledge will often reflect and sustain existing power structures, and is used in the policy process in processes of contest, negotiation, legitimisation and marginalisation.
Recent theoretical developments on the role of knowledge in the policy process have generally stemmed from the third paradigm. Analysis of the role of power in the policy process has coalesced around three interlocking types of relations:

– Actors and networks: this sees the driving force in policy processes as material political economy, with interest groups competing over the allocation of resources and the formulation of rules and regulations. Knowledge is often seen as subordinate to interests, used tactically or as ‘ammunition’ in adversarial decision-making. Taking a closer look, the effect of actors deploying information and ideas, and the role that knowledge and ideas play in structuring networks, coalitions and ‘interests’, suggests a more active role for knowledge.
– Institutions: this attributes an ongoing force in policy-making to the context and institutions that shape the formal and informal ‘rules of the game’ such as constitutional rules and cultural norms. Knowledge and ideas are refracted, altered and translated to fit prevailing institutions, or certain types of knowledge may be excluded entirely. It can also play a role through becoming institutionalised, embedded in bureaucratic procedures, laws, or organisational forms.
– Discourse: this sees knowledge and power as intertwined, with considerable power held in concepts and ideas seen as relevant for policy, and exerted through interactive processes of communication and policy formulation. There are various areas of study within this, for example: the role of cognitive paradigms in limiting the range of policy options considered, and the dynamics of ‘narratives’ in the policy process, simplifying complex situations and driving policy.
As well as these theoretical insights, there are two key areas of practical interest: the production of knowledge, and the processes linking knowledge and policy. A great deal of work focuses on how the production of knowledge can be oriented in order to strengthen the link between knowledge and policy. Key sources of knowledge are:
– Research: this can provide useful inputs to policy, especially if explicitly focused on policy problems. However, there are calls to broaden this to recognise the need for critical and advocacy work, as well as more fundamental scientific research.
– Process: knowledge generated in the process of implementing development programmes (including, but not restricted to knowledge of the processes) is seen as an invaluable resource for policy. There are a number of practical problems in capturing and using this knowledge, however, as well as political barriers.
– Voice, participation and citizen knowledge: a great deal of work advocates either for citizens to be directly involved in generating knowledge for policy, or to be invited to participate in policy spaces. Criticisms have highlighted that such processes can function as a ‘new tyranny’, requiring a move towards ‘transformative’ participation.
– Multiple sources and interdisciplinarity: recognising that problems are complex, multidimensional and dynamic highlights the importance of integrating multiple disciplines and multiple types of knowledge. This would bring a holistic understanding of the problem, however it faces challenges from the way that work is often divided into ‘silos’.

Processes that mediate between the generation and use of knowledge play a crucial role in the link between knowledge and policy:
– Communicating and translating ideas and knowledge: work on research communication highlights making messages ‘sticky’, short and easy to understand, adapting them to audiences’ mindsets. Critics suggest these principles may result in the ‘wrong kind of influence’.
– Interaction and exchange: This requires stimulating interaction and collaboration in order to take on board the contextual nature of knowledge and the complexities of its use.
– Social influence and persuasion: social factors such as face-to-face communication and social networks spread messages through peer influence.
– Intermediaries and credibility: Sustaining long-term links between knowledge and policy requires intermediary organisations. As well as communicating and translating knowledge, they must also ‘mediate’ between different actors and types of knowledge, which needs trust and credibility.
– Demand for and use of knowledge: work highlights the importance of the right capacities and incentives for policy actors to use knowledge, as well as political determinants of demand.

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