Utafiti Sera is a Swahili phrase, meaning Research Policy. It is a dedicated and well thought out scheme that builds, supports, and enhances communities of researchers and policy actors working together to ensure evidence-informed decision making (EIDM). The communities work to ensure appropriate and negotiated policy actions and evidence uptake occur either through programmes, legislations, high-quality policy debates, policy design or administrative and other forms of civic actions around issues for which there is either research evidence or rigorous synthesis of available knowledge.
In Africa, given the multiplicity of actors with different interests, ideologies, power, resources, capacity and knowledge in the policy-making terrain, organisations established to support evidence-informed policymaking face an array of complex challenges in order to be effective. It is estimated that donors spend over US$2 billion annually on development-related research. However, the evidence produced hardly translates into policies due to a lack of meaningful engagements between researchers and policy practitioners. These challenges call for adapting as well as doing research and policy engagement differently from the current conventional approaches. It is this realisation that informed the PASGR’s innovative approach to working with and through research–policy communities, hence Utafiti Sera.
Utafiti Sera provides a platform for discussions and dialogue toward bridging gaps between research evidence and policy. It creates communities of practice to support the growth of a culture of evidence-informed policymaking across Africa.
Our Initial Approach – 2011 to 2013
At inception in 2011, PASGR’s Research Programme was anchored on the 18 key thematic issues of the African Union Social Policy Framework. The goal was to enhance relevance of the work through alignment not only to the felt needs of African governments but also to the priorities of the regional body. This led to PASGR’s first research which focused on Social Protection, given its relevance and what was seen as the emerging policy attention that African governments, the African Union and development partners had given to the challenges of inclusiveness and poverty reduction. Throughout the phases of the study, PASGR built-in a process for facilitating active engagements between researchers and policy actors as a way of increasing evidence uptake in policymaking and relevant legislation. Upon completion of the research, a series of policy briefing papers were developed which formed the basis for sustained policy engagement with stakeholders in various countries.
The Watershed Moment – 2014 to 2017
In November 2014, PASGR organised its first Biennial Conference on the theme ‘Social protection in Africa’. The conference brought together 88 participants comprised of researchers, policymakers, practitioners, government representatives as well as representatives from the funding organisations, to share policy-relevant research findings. The expectation was that the recommendations would get policy attention and buy-in from relevant quotas. The discussions that ensued between researchers and policy actors triggered the need for an innovative approach to effective policy engagement. The policy actors showed interest for regular dialogues with researchers for a better understanding of knowledge and policy gaps in specific sectors so that research evidence can help improve policy development and respective programming. The call for regular policy dialogues was again repeated in January 2015 during Kenya’s first Social Protection Week.
The outcomes of these two events marked the turning point for PASGR’s approach to engaging, informing and influencing policy uptake with research evidence. It led us to think about dedicated platforms, spaces and/or vehicles through which researchers and policy actors could interact and engage each other to confront public policy problems.
In May 2015, PASGR received a seed grant from the Dutch Knowledge Platform on Inclusive Development (INCLUDE) to conceptualize and design an innovative approach for using research to inform policy. PASGR organised a Research-Policy Actors Forum in September 2015 that examined the challenges of research-to-policy uptake; assessed important knowledge needs of policy actors; explored the processes that researchers need to be aware of and appreciate if their research evidence is to get policy traction; and important stakeholders that need to be involved in attempts to build the policy-research communities. Based on the experiences shared, it became clear that the challenges of low uptake of policy research could be improved if researchers and policy actors worked together. The forum also understood that using research evidence to inform policy and programme uptake needs to recognise the interest and power of multiple actors, hence political negotiation and consensus-building would be key to the work of the community. In addition, the use of both traditional and new media would be needed to help set the agenda and effectively disseminate research evidence.
Our Eureka Moment – 2017 and beyond
Building on lessons from a series of internal and external engagements, PASGR finally got a handle on a unique Theory of Change in translating research into policy and enhancing evidence uptake – Utafiti Sera. The Swahili phrase for Research Policy was coined creating a platform for knowledge sharing and engagement on policy issues.
Our approach integrates rigorous research and evidence creation with active advocacy and influencing to enhance evidence uptake. The approach is responsive to both national, sectoral, and regional level policy engagement with the aim of informing, advocating for and contributing to appropriate and relevant policies and programmes. Thus, we help set the agenda for high-quality national policy dialogues, support the design of policies, review and modify existing policies and champion the implementation of designed policies.
Utafiti Sera model works around three interlinking objectives:
A Flexible Approach
Given that policy formation is always and often a dynamic work in progress, there are several possible routes under Utafiti Sera. Where circumstances permit such as the political will and effective buy-in for policy, Utafiti Sera adopts a ‘shorter route’ model towards ensuring policy uptake. Conversely, in contexts that require more preliminary work of bringing different players and actors together, facilitating contacts, networks and identifying interests; Utafiti Sera adopts a ‘longer route’ made up of additional research, communication, building bridges, working out advocacy plans, facilitating ownership, and identifying and mobilizing collective and individual champions (See, the diagram below for the Schematics of Utafiti Sera.
We use the concept of a house to represent a place, forum and a vehicle for shared knowledge and experiences to enhance research evidence uptake. The Utafiti Sera House is a convening of multiple policy actors regularly meeting to engage with synthesise evidence, generate new evidence, benefit from each other’s experiences thus co-producing outcomes. The houses provide resources, facilitation, and support in generating research evidence geared toward influencing policy change.
As a ‘process’, Utafiti Sera involves a sequence of activities that enable the building of a community of interests and practice from where existing and new ideas, as well as evidence flow from members of the community resulting in collective action and interventions to improve policy design and implementation.
As a ‘place’, Utafiti Sera provides a space for key stakeholders with interest, power, capacity and motivation to act in diverse ways to ensure that research evidence becomes available and is used to make informed policy decisions and take appropriate actions.
As a ‘forum’, Utafiti Sera it provides a non-partisan platform for knowledge engagement, ‘outreach’ and ‘in-reach’ by different members of the community irrespective of theoretical and ideological differences. This is in order to build bridges and work together to establish a common ground to pursue agreed upon goals.
As a ‘vehicle’, Utafiti Sera constitutes motor and pathways, transmission belts or/and channels for shared knowledge (common areas on which there are agreements and consensus), and experiences to enhance policy uptake.
Step 1: Mapping and Constituting the Utafiti Sera House
PASGR uses political economy analysis (PEA) to assess and provide a synthesis of the existing evidence and knowledge about a particular policy issue, identify gaps both in knowledge and policy, identify actors on various fronts – subject matter researchers and experts, policy actors and other important stakeholders, their interests and capacities, the existing power dynamics, and strategies for influencing evidence uptake in policy making The main aim of the PEA is to map existing studies that form preliminary evidence on the specific policy issue and helps identify entry points for additional evidence and policy engagement.
Based on the mapping analysis, PASGR holds meetings with the key stakeholders and invites them to the ‘Utafiti Sera House’.
Step 2: Identify Host Institution
As the facilitator of Utafiti Sera, PASGR, identifies a like-minded policy think tank, advocacy or practicing organization in a country to host the programme. The Host Institution is responsible for infusing local context and taking lead in the implementation of house activities.
Step 3: Commissioning research on the thematic subject and translating them to actionable policy evidence
Once the policy challenge or the knowledge gap is identified in the House, PASGR works with partners to commission studies, to synthesize existing knowledge as well as rapidly provide new knowledge on the issue and present the findings to the Utafiti Sera House. Forums include roundtable discussions, policy dialogue sessions, workshops and conferences.
Step 4: Organizing policy engagement forums
Forums are organized to discuss issues for which research evidence is available. Usually, the first forum focuses on the design and building of the Utafiti Sera House and deliberating on the specific policy issues and activities of the house. Based on the discussions and consensus, the Utafiti Sera House makes a determination on specific issues that require immediate policy action, develops short and medium term objectives and series of activities towards realization of the set objectives.
Step 5: Packaging and Dissemination of Research Evidence
Both conventional and new media are used to disseminate research evidence. This includes short video documentaries; Policy Alerts and Briefs; Newspaper Articles; Op-Eds; Tweeters; Facebook, Google plus and other social media platform.
Step 6: Use of Policy Champions
In many cases, we have found that policy issues produce their champions. These are important agents either within the Utafiti Sera House or outside of it. The process engages and mobilizes them with the necessary information.
Step 7: Networking and conferences
Utafiti Sera also engages in inter-house activities through conferences and networking forums to share experiences, draw lessons and build communities around the available evidence.