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Evidence-informed policy requires ‘translators’ with political savvy

A new report details which factors make translators more successful

From the rise of impact evaluations in the social sciences to urban data dashboards, evidence- and data-driven policymaking is all the rage in countries around the world. Both political leaders and technocrats are increasingly attempting to tie decision-making to more empirical sources of evidence around “what works,” value-for-money analyses, and other ways of rationalizing the expenditure of resources, both financial and political. This steady uptick in evidence-informed policymaking (EIP), both nationally and locally, feels like it’s here to stay.

At the same time, the early wave of euphoria associated with EIP has subsided, with a more nuanced understanding of the upside as well as challenges associated with promoting EIP taking hold. No longer do practitioners and researchers naively assume that simply generating good evidence is sufficient for promoting evidence uptake; instead, there is increasing interest and awareness around the crucial role that “evidence translators” — journalists, policy wonks, talking heads or other influencers — play in packaging and delivering data and evidence to policymakers in a way that impacts ultimate decision-making. But often little was known about translators beyond anecdotes and theory describing their role in the EIP ecosystem.

With partners at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, who have been investing in the EIP space globally for years, we began a journey more than two years ago to better define and understand the role and influence of these evidence translators in different contexts. Our primary focus was unpacking which factors, both specific to translators themselves as well as those in the broader EIP ecosystem, were more important to translators achieving success in influencing policy decisions. We wanted to zero in on the most important factors — analytical skills and capacity, political connections or reputation — that might begin to help us predict which translators might have more success in a given context, and how best external actors interested in promoting EIP (such as the Hewlett Foundation) could target support for translators in the future. What we found both reinforced some of our priors as well as debunked a number of our assumptions.

What we found

Based on a rigorous research protocol that included an extensive literature review with structured observational research of two real-life EIP processes (one around national health insurance in Ghana, the other in Buenos Aires related to passage of a new Access to Information law), we began to flesh out a framework for better understanding which exogeneous and endogenous factors mattered more (and less) to translator success. We found that:

  • Translators can hold a wide range of roles. They can work within research or intermediary organizations, in government, or be independent actors. They can be researchers or policymakers themselves. They don’t always need to be labeled as “translators” to be effective or hold “typical” roles and titles such as a journalist or policy analyst.
  • Much to our surprise, political savvy is the skill that came out as most important to translators’ success, not their technical skills or analytical capacity. This insight raises interesting questions around the role of external actors in supporting EIP translators; are there effective modalities through which we can invest in capacity building around political savvy? We’re not entirely sure. 
  • Credibility is another unsurprising but crucially important characteristic that predicts which translators are likely going to be more successful. Put another way: who translators are, and their perceived reputations, matter as much or more than what their evidence and data have to say, with respect to the potential for ultimate policy uptake.
  • The degree of rigor associated with evidence appears to matter less than what many had assumed, in terms of influencing policy uptake and translator success. This appears to track with separate research that recently emerged which calls into question whether randomized control trials and other rigorous quantitative methods generate better returns on investment when the time for policy decisions actually arrives.

The full study dives into great depth on all of these findings and more, and also includes an in-depth description of the research methodology we employed to structure the observational research and coding that ultimately allowed us to draw these conclusions. We are eager for feedback on both the findings and the research protocol and recognize that analysis such as this can always benefit from additional cases and stress testing.

So, where do we go from here?

Looking ahead, the full reporting highlights several next steps based on these findings for external actors seeking to promote EIP generally as well as strengthen the effectiveness of individual translators at the country and local levels. Among them:

  • We need to think expansively about who might play the translator role rather than defaulting to familiar tropes. In other words: don’t fetishize the search for translators who carry predictable titles and roles; alternative, less-usual-suspect translators may actually be the more effective ones.
  • Is it possible for external actors and supports to actually build capacity around political savvy? We’re not entirely sure ourselves. If not, is there anything outsider actors can do to address this key factor that emerges from the research as centrally important to translator success?
  • Yes, analytical quality and technical chops still matter for effective evidence translation. While those skills did not ultimately emerge as more important that perceived reputation and politically savvy, we did not find evidence to support the notion that translators could be effective absent a baseline amount of technical competency. Analytical skills are thus necessary but insufficient for translator success.

In an area where little was known about evidence translators, the findings of this study have identified several factors that enable and constrain translators’ abilities to effectively support evidence-informed policymaking. Implicit in this research is that translators are vital for the use of evidence in policymaking — and, moving forward, researchers, intermediary organizations, policymakers and development partners should support them in their work.

 Palace of the Argentine National Congress, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Photo © Richie Diesterheft

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