Bridging the gap between research and public policy continues to constitute a key challenge and pre-occupation of many organizations that support and fund research for policy uptake. Governments, private foundations and other funders have recognized this challenge and subsequently contributed to efforts that connect research to evidence-based policy making and programme implementation. It is estimated that donors spend over US$2 billion annually in development related research. In Africa, given the multiplicity of actors with different interests, ideologies, power, resources, capacity and knowledge in the policy making terrain, organizations established to support evidence based policy making face an array of complex challenges in order to be effective. These challenges call for adapting as well as doing research and policy engagement differently from the current conventional approaches. It is a realization of this that has informed PASGR’s innovative approach to working with and through research–policy communities, hence Utafiti Sera.
Utafiti Sera is a Swahili term, meaning Research Policy. It is a dedicated and well thought out scheme that supports, builds and enhances a community of researchers and policy actors working together to ensure that appropriate and negotiated policy actions and 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.
This concept note seeks to address three issues. First, it provides a background on the origins of PASGR’s Utafiti Sera. Second, it explains the “process and action framework” and uses on-going Utafiti Sera to illustrate how the scheme works.
2.0. The Context: Making PASGR’s Research Relevant to Public Policy in Africa
Our Initial Approach
Right from its 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 the selection of social protection in 2012 as PASGR’s first research theme given the emerging policy attention that governments, the African Union and development partners had given to the challenges of inclusiveness and poverty reduction. All through the study, PASGR insisted that researchers had regular interaction/engagement with country policy actors. On completion, ‘Policy Briefs’ were extracted from the study reports and disseminated to varied policy actors.
The Watershed Moment
In November 2014, PASGR organized its first Biennial Conference on the theme ‘Social protection in Africa’. The conference brought together 88 participants comprised of researchers, policy makers and practitioners, as well as international organizations that fund research on social protection, to share policy relevant research findings. The expectation was that some of the recommendations would get policy attention and buy-in. The discussions that ensued between researchers and policy actors triggered the need for an innovative approach to effective policy engagement. The policy actors requested regular dialogues with researchers to create better understanding of knowledge and policy gaps in specific sectors so that research evidence can help improve policy and programme development. The call for regular dialogue between researchers and policy actors was repeated in January 2015 at another forum, when the Kenyan government organized its first social protection week.
These two events marked the turning point of PASGR’s approach to engaging, informing and influencing policy uptake with research evidence. It led to thinking 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 organized a Research-Policy Actors Forum that brought together 33 participants. The forum examined the challenges of research to policy uptake; determined important knowledge needs of policy actors; 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 community. 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 recognize 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
Through a series of internal discussions, brainstorming and several rounds of iterations, PASGR finally got a handle on its theory of change on research for policy uptake –Utafiti Sera – a Kiswahili phrase used to represent the Research-Policy Community.
2.1 How Utafiti Sera Works
Utafiti Sera is still work-in-progress. It is a process, place, forum, platform, or vehicle that facilitates building and enhancing of a community of researchers and policy actors working together to ensure that appropriate and negotiated policy actions and uptake occur either through programmes, legislations, policies or administrative and other forms of civic actions around issues for which research has provided evidence or for which a synthesis of available evidence has been made. Utafiti Sera involves an intentional stretching of the boundaries of policy engagement through sustained actions and efforts by a community of actors who work to own both process and structure and realize that there is a commonality and identity of basic interests in the problem.
As a ‘process’, Utafiti Sera involves a sequences 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’, 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. And 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.
The approach can be used to solve a variety of public policy problems for which research provides evidence and in which multiple actors have expressed interest. Utafiti Sera at national, local, sectorial and regional levels is an innovative mechanism to inform and positively advocate, proffer and contribute to appropriate and relevant policies and programmes. Given that policy formation is always and often a dynamic work in progress, there are several possible routes. Where circumstances permit such as the presence of most of the actors and conditions, Utafiti Sera may take what can be termed a shorter route towards ensuring policy uptake. In contexts that require more preliminary work of bringing different players and actors together, facilitating contacts, networks and identifying interests; it can take “a longer route” made up of further research, communication, building bridges, working out advocacy plans, facilitating ownership, and identifying and mobilizing collective and individual champions. This involves a more detailed set of incremental activities. There are therefore different time frames, starting points and steps in making Utafiti Sera work.
2.2 Outcomes of Utafiti Sera
The overarching goal of Utafiti Sera is uptake of research evidence defined as supporting design of national policies, setting agenda for high quality national policy debates, and contributing to modifying existing policies, programmes and implementation through application of research evidence. To achieve these goals the short to medium term objectives include:
2.3 Designing Utafiti Sera in a Country
There are a series of activities to undertake in setting up Utafiti Sera in a country.
Mapping and Constituting the ‘Utafiti Sera House’
The first activity involves facilitating the establishment of the ‘Utafiti Sera House’. This consists of identification and mapping of key stakeholders/institutions on the specific public policy issue at stake. PASGR uses political economy analysis to assess the powers, interests, motivation and capacity of the key stakeholders in the sector or the public policy issue at stake. Based on the mapping analysis, PASGR holds meetings with the key stakeholders and invites them to the ‘Utafiti Sera House’. There could be more than one Utafiti Sera House in a country depending on the different issues being addressed. The scheme below depicts the Utafiti Sera action/process flows showing possible short and long routes to pursue policy uptake.
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Utafiti Sera Process and Action Flow Framework
Identifying the host Institution
As the facilitator of Utafiti Sera, PASGR, or its partner, identifies a like-minded policy think tank, advocacy or practicing organization in a country to host the programme. Where PASGR already works in the country, identifying the host organization is not difficult. However, where PASGR has insufficient working knowledge of appropriate organizations in the country, a series of activities are undertaken directly by PASGR and/or its partners to identify credible and well-grounded organizations to host the programme.
Mapping of existing studies on the specific issue and translating them to easily readable formats
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.
Organization of Forums
Forums are organized to discuss issues for which research evidence is available. The first forum as of current practice focuses on the design and building of the Utafiti Sera House. It also includes initial deliberations on existing research findings on the public policy issue at stake. 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.
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; Opeds; Tweeters; Facebook, Google plus and other social media platform.
Breakfast Meeting with Key Policy Makers
Once some form of consensus on actions is reached, substantial research evidence is gathered, synthesized and produced in digestible forms for identified and selected groups of the Utafiti Sera House to present policy and/or programme recommendations to key policy makers/practitioners. For policy and legislation, the target institution is the Parliamentary Select Committee in the form of breakfast meetings. This engagement takes various forms depending on what stage of policy action the identified and agreed upon issues require.
Use of Individuals as 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. “Champions” are not lobbyists and do not receive remuneration.
2.4. PASGR’s Experience from On-going Utafiti Sera Work
For the past three years, PASGR has supported major policy relevant studies on social protection; employment creation in the context of inclusive growth and urban governance and city transformation in Africa. With financial support from the Knowledge Platform on Inclusive Development (INCLUDE), PASGR has begun implementation of Utafiti Sera on social protection and Employment Creation in agriculture and agro-industries in Kenya and Nigeria.
2.5 Initiation of Utafiti Sera on Inclusive Urban Governance and City Transformation
In 2015, PASGR began studies on the determinants of city transformation in Africa. This study was triggered by evidence that the trope ‘Africa rising’ is not only manifesting in economic growth but also that major cities are transforming their economies, infrastructure and services. PASGR has facilitated studies in six cities, namely Luanda (Angola); Lagos (Nigeria); Johannesburg (South Africa); Nairobi (Kenya); Addis Ababa (Ethiopia); and Kigali (Rwanda). While the three studies provide evidence that indeed investments in flagship infrastructure projects have contributed to cities’ transformation, the findings also demonstrate that the turnaround has not been inclusive – a finding that resonates with the current growth spurt in Africa. Some economic, political, social and gender groups have not befitted from the turnaround. With massive urban inequalities in the cities and the coexistence of large numbers of slum areas and islands of wealth and increasing opulence, urban governments and policy makers are confronted with tough questions about how they can steer inclusiveness, reduce poverty and inequality in the urban space. Utafiti Sera provides that space for negotiated political settlements and efforts at difficult policy consensus that would enable each socio-economic, political and cultural group to claim some of the benefits of a city turnaround.
PASGR intends to scale up and expand Utafiti Sera into an integrated programme that not only advances policy engagement and uptake but also constitutes in its different expressions both a space for community building around important policy questions in development, social justice and human rights issues and a forum for identifying and working on both policy and research gaps