(caution – video clip may contain swearing)
Responding to policy-makers’ needs is important, and being able to clarify and communicate research is an essential skill for development researchers. But it may have unintended consequences. By always giving policy-makers what they want – shorter, simpler and easier things to read – are we implicitly accepting that they should not be held up to the same standards as other professionals? In short, are we unintentionally ‘dumbing down’ the audience?
The preference referred to here was brilliantly caricatured in my favourite TV show The Thick of It (see clip above) through the hapless figure of Cabinet Minister Hugh Abbot and his enthusiastic catchcry (series 1 espisode 2):
“Cut out all the extraneous stuff… just the facts man, just the protein. Atkins government!”
The post, by ODI Research Fellow Enrique Mendizabal, goes on:
Successful professionals do not just check the latest blogs or browse the most recent tweets; instead they study academic publications and trade magazines, attend professional conferences and continuing education courses to update their expert knowledge. As a consequence of this demand, they are showered with a wide range of special ised publications and support services that, rather than simplify and digest things for them, intellectually stimulate and challenge them.
. . . we have developed models and frameworks that help to recognise and understand our environment and decide what to do. However, as Cleaver and Franks found out when attempting to communicate a framework for water governance, some policy-makers often consider these to be far too complicated and unnecessary; what they want, what they need, are solutions – three messages or actions points.
Somehow, we have come to accept that policy-makers in the development sector (and I include policy-makers of developing and developed countries in this group) don’t need to engage with the complexity of the problems they face and that it is enough for them to know what to do. If they can muster an action plan, that is sufficient.
This is not just dangerous policy-making in the short term. In the long term, by separating research from the influencing process, we may be providing policy-makers with incentives against investing in their own capacity. If they can always expect a two-page briefing with simple steps to follow, then why should they ever bother reading a full study and getting to the bottom of the arguments? Why check the data used in the analysis, or the methodological robustness of the analy sis itself? And if they don’t have to, then why bother learning how to do it in the first place?
This discussion raises challenging questions about the role of elected representatives in a complex and knowledge-intensive age. What are your thoughts on this?