A panoramic view of the interior of the European Parliament, full of parliamentarians ahead of a vote. In the foreground a group of cameramen and photographers position their cameras onto the room.
Debate in the European Parliament. Photo © European Union 2014 - European Parliament.

Guidance note 5: Working with governments and parliaments internationally

Guidance Note 3 focusses on some general principles of policy engagement and achieving impact, which will apply either in the UK or internationally. This Note aims to illuminate some of the specific points of contrast between working within the UK governance environment and engaging with policy in other countries.

Key points

  • Policy engagement may be with governments or parliaments, at national or sub-national level.
  • Establishing contact with and access to policy actors, keeping up with current and emerging issues, and understanding the nuances of political debate are all harder than in the country you live in, and are greatly aided by collaboration with a local research institution.
  • Whether engagement with parliament will have any practical impact on public policy depends on the constitutional role of the legislature, the dynamics of party politics, and the capacity of members and officers.

Engaging with governments

First we consider engagement with national governments and parliaments (using the term generically to mean legislatures however named), their sub-national equivalents (such as regional or provincial assemblies) and local government authorities (for example municipalities or city governments).31 It is perhaps natural for attention to gravitate towards national governments as the principal policy-making authority for the state, but in some federal countries sub-national governments are responsible for very large populations and a substantial range of policy domains, For example, in Pakistan the Punjab provincial government governs some 110 million people, and since the 18th Amendment to the national Constitution in 2010 is responsible for almost all areas of domestic policy. Government entities on this scale are at least as likely to be willing and able to engage with researchers as national governments elsewhere.

The value of local partnerships

Probably the smoothest and most direct path to engagement at country level is through collaborative research projects with national higher education institutions. Ideally these will have been designed in discussion with national policy actors in any case (as is the expectation with GCRF grant proposals, for example), but even if not, local academics have a much better chance of having existing contacts with and access to politicians and senior officials than a foreign researcher, and are most likely to be the channel through which to bring relevant research to their attention. These same contacts will also be the key to engaging policy actors in the design stage of research projects.

Without well-connected local research partners, establishing contact with the appropriate officials in a foreign country is likely to prove a frustrating business, and even more so if there are language barriers to overcome. In developed countries policy officials are often struggling with tight timescales, limited resources, a cacophony of different opinions, and insufficient knowledge on which to base recommendations with any degree of certainty about the outcomes. In these circumstances they tend to be primed to shut out new voices, and to discount proffered information unless from a known and trusted source which they are confident will help them solve their problem. In LMICs (low and middle income countries) the problem is more acute still, with even more constrained capacity: emails or letters are unlikely to get a response, even if accurate addresses can be obtained and inboxes are not full; face to face meetings will be more effective but often depend on making direct telephone contact with the senior person concerned; and mobile phone numbers can be guarded like gold-dust. An unsolicited policy brief has little chance of being noticed or read. Personal introductions become even more important as a first step to engagement, preferably from a national academic or possibly, for an early career researcher, a senior colleague who has already established these contacts. Once made contacts need to be maintained socially; the value of a little hospitality on an appropriate scale should not be discounted. Having dinner with both academic and policy counterparts while in the country, and being willing to discuss their problems informally, can go a long way to building trust.

Governments are likely to issue public consultations from time to time, but keeping abreast of these may not be easy. In some countries it is relatively simple for researchers to check for open consultations relevant to their field of interest, through a single government portal such as the UK government’s Policy Papers and Consultation pages, or equivalents elsewhere such as the federal Canadian website Consulting with Canadians. There are unlikely to be equivalents of these in LMIC settings, even in countries like Kenya with quite well-developed e-government services. Moreover, in the country in which you are based you may become aware of these through conversations, news stories or announcements in the press, but it is much harder to pick up on these cues from abroad. The best way of keeping in touch with these developments is likely be through local research partnerships or established networks of local contacts. While it may be feasible for researchers to scan the websites of relevant government bodies in one or a few countries of interest if their research has a specific geographical focus, it is virtually impossible to do so on a global basis for work which has more general potential relevance. University support offices face the same difficulties in this regard as individual researchers or research teams.

Some challenges of international engagement

A broader issue is that it is much harder to become familiar with current policy issues and debates in another country, to be aware of new emerging concerns, or to grasp the shifting nuances of the language in which policy debates are couched, than it is in one’s country of residence. Without this it is not only more difficult to notice and seize appropriate opportunities to engage in the policy debate, but it is also harder to present proposals or information in terms which will appear credible and the relevance of which will be apparent to policy actors. In some countries, moreover, the complex interactions of ethnic, regional, religious and party-political affiliations can be almost unfathomable for outsiders.

Attempted engagement without clear bearings in the local policy environment can present some risks

Attempted engagement without clear bearings in the local policy environment can present some risks – not least of not knowing who or which groups a particular line of research may be seen to advantage or disadvantage, whose patronage will be helpful or unhelpful in achieving long-term engagement and impact on policy, or what the consequences of that impact might be. In some conflict-affected or insecure parts of the world an incautious approach might lead to physical risks to the researcher’s safety, or to that of field-workers. Less extremely, a naïve approach to LMIC politicians or officials which seems to be offering ready-made answers to complex local problems, from a Western or Global North, developed world perspective can easily be read as condescending or neo-colonialist and cause offence, to the detriment of longer-term co-operation with that research team or even that institution.

Some advantages of international engagement

Once a relationship of trust has been established, the relatively low capacity of many LMIC governments means that there may well be a greater appetite for relevant, useable information and well-crafted analysis and advice than in more developed administrative environments where there is greater internal and external competition for influence

On a positive note, researchers we have spoken to have registered some definite advantages to pursuing policy engagement with overseas governments. Compared with the UK, there is a higher likelihood, once the attention of government has been gained, of interacting directly with ministers rather than just with officials or a centralised research management function. Timelines for providing research inputs may also be longer and more strategic in focus, compared with UK departments which are often working to short deadlines to answer very specific questions. The inference that might be drawn is that the shorter the timescale on which answers are required, the more policy actors will be forced to rely on the extant knowledge and expertise of senior experts, so the personal and institutional brand will become even more decisive in determining engagement, whereas longer-term strategic collaborations allow for a wider range of researchers potentially to become involved in the production of new knowledge. Moreover, once a relationship of trust has been established, the relatively low capacity of many LMIC governments means that there may well be a greater appetite for relevant, useable information and well-crafted analysis and advice than in more developed administrative environments where there is greater internal and external competition for influence.

James Georgalakis’s blog Policy and Research: It’s the Relationships Stupid cites evidence from case studies of collaborations between researchers and policy actors, including African research teams engaging with their governments, which reinforces the importance of relationships built on trust, but recognises that trust must be based on a recognition of differing agendas. Civil servants everywhere must ultimately generate politically viable options for elected officials, while researchers’ underlying interests might be quite different.

The role of donors

It is important to be aware, in working in LMICs, of the role played by the donors, or development partners as they are often referred to, not just in funding development activities either directly through projects or indirectly through budget support, but also in shaping the terms of policy debate in countries in which they work. Donors include the bilateral aid agencies (i.e. those representing single national governments, such as former DFID for the UK, Danida for Denmark or GIZ for Germany), the multilateral bodies (for example the World Bank, UN agencies such as UNICEF or UNDP, or the European Commission), and philanthropic foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. These organisations not only shape national policies directly through the operations they choose to fund, but the expectations and requirements they impose on beneficiary governments also influence the terms of policy debate and the way in which alternative policy options are assessed. The sources of many terms and concepts which later surface in national policy documents or sectoral strategies can be found in flagship reports published on these donors’ websites – and these to a greater or lesser extent are likely to draw on prior academic research, whether specially commissioned or already published.

Working with consultancies

Working with international organisations is discussed further in Guidance Note 6. Here we just need to note that both multilateral and bilateral aid agencies outsource the technical delivery of a significant proportion of projects to consultancy firms, some of which operate on a commercial and some on a not-for-profit basis. The boundary between research and consultancy is not a hard-and-fast one, and not infrequently consultancy projects contain some element of original research, or the tenderer would see advantage in building this into their proposal. These projects are usually funded by the international bilateral or multilateral donors, but sometimes, in better-resourced middle-income countries, by national governments themselves.

Building the relationship ahead of time is essential to ensure an invitation to be included in a forthcoming bid

Even where research opportunities do not exist firms will often welcome the inclusion of academic expertise (by topic or country) in their team; this can provide a good platform from which researchers can establish contacts and visibility with government. The Development Tracker website provides a good insight into development assistance spending by all UK government departments and who is winning which projects, while DFID’s commercial pipeline of forthcoming opportunities is also published online.35 How the presentation of this information will evolve in future following the DFID/FCO merger remains to be seen, but researchers may find it useful to use these resources to establish contacts with firms active in fields to which their work is relevant. Building the relationship ahead of time is essential to ensure an invitation to be included in a forthcoming bid; once the contract has been awarded it can difficult to get permission to add personnel to the team, and budgets are usually too finely adjusted easily to accommodate contributions that were not planned for at the outset.

Apart from working directly on consultancy firms’ contracted projects, it is also important to recognise that these firms are themselves often consumers and appliers of academic research (though frequently restricted in how far they can access work published in pay-walled journals). They can be important vectors of research knowledge between academia and governments internationally, so it can be of mutual benefit for researchers to establish relationships with consultants working in a relevant field and ensure that they are aware of up-to-date findings. Similar considerations apply to major development international non-governmental organisations (INGOs), like for example Oxfam, Save the Children or ActionAid, which draw heavily on current research knowledge to provide an evidential foundation for their programmes; sometimes they undertake research themselves or in collaboration with partners, and sometimes they commission external researchers to do it – requests for proposals are published on the bodies’ websites.

Some questions to consider

  • Did you establish links with local research collaborators or other partners when preparing your research proposals? If so, how well connected to or credible with government are they? If not, what avenues are open to you now to establish these connections?
  • What alternative strategy do you have for identifying and making contact with relevant people in government? Is there a National Development Plan or similar which would help you understand national policy priorities and where you research interests might be relevant?
  • How do you propose to stay abreast of emerging issues and topics of debate in-country, and to sensitise yourself to local political or cultural sensitivities?

Engaging with parliaments

Whether and how to engage

Working with parliaments in other countries poses many of the same challenges as working with the executive arm – of identifying key stakeholders, gaining access, building and sustaining relationships of trust, and presenting research knowledge that is relevant to current concerns and accessible. In addition, there are a number of issues that a researcher should address before investing time, effort (and possibly credibility with the government) in engaging with parliamentarians. The principal questions to consider concern the constitutional role of parliament in the country of interest. How does it interact with the executive in making policy – does it initiate policy itself, and if so how, or does it scrutinise the proposals of government? Does it have powers to initiate legislation, or does it in the main – like the Westminster parliament – scrutinise and amend Bills tabled by government? However, even a careful study of the formal constitution of the country concerned will not necessarily reveal the true balance of power between executive and legislature, and whether parliament in practice provides any real check on or opposition to the government, or influences its policy direction.

Local research partners may have a better feel for how powerful or influential parliament is in practice, or have contacts with civil society organisations or parliamentarians who may be able to shed more light on the matter.

There are a large number of variables, some of them reflective of the prevailing political culture of the country, some very sharply practical in effect. For example, the funding of parliamentary functions must of necessity be part of the public finances. The practical question is how far the executive is minded (and has the powers) to use its control of the national budget process to impose tight constraints on the resources of parliament and restrict its ability to scrutinise government. Senior appointments are also a source of control. Whereas in the House of Commons at Westminster the Speaker is elected by the whole House, in the Jatiya Sangsad, the parliament of Bangladesh, the Speaker is directly appointed by the Prime Minister, with predictable consequences for any proposed changes in the Rules of Procedure which would render its oversight more effective. Local research partners may have a better feel for how powerful or influential parliament is in practice, or have contacts with civil society organisations or parliamentarians who may be able to shed more light on the matter.

Where parliament has little practical power to affect the direction of policy imbuing members with new knowledge or understanding of an issue may have little or no effect on the direction of public policy nationally; where it is more effective or has a higher profile and credibility with the public, parliamentary engagement may lead directly to policy impact, or at least shift the terms of public debate in ways which are precursors of policy change. Where the parliamentary infrastructure is adequately resourced there is much to be said for establishing relationships with the officers of parliament as well as with individual champions amongst elected members; ensuring that relevant research is reflected in briefing notes or research papers that are available to all members or to all of a committee is a powerful way of amplifying and reinforcing the arguments of a particular champion of a topic, but depends greatly on the capacity of the parliamentary support machinery. Understanding the institutional context is paramount.

There are a number of subsidiary questions which are worth asking in order to arrive at a fuller understanding of how a parliament works, as outlined below.

Some questions to consider

  • How influential are committees in its proceedings, what is the committee structure, and how important are committee Chairs? How are Chairs selected – are they appointed by government, elected by the committees themselves, or elected by the whole House? Do opposition members chair any committees?
  • How are members elected? If for single- or multi-member geographical constituencies, do they tend to be more interested in issues of national governance or (as in many cases, as for example in Ghana) in the local benefits their constituents expect them to bring back? What are the implications if they are elected instead on regional or (as in Guyana) national party lists? Do some occupy seats reserved for special groups, such as women (as in Bangladesh or Pakistan) or the armed forces (as in Myanmar)?
  • What is the capacity of parliament to absorb and utilise new knowledge from research? How much depends on the resources of individual members and their offices, and how well equipped are the secretariats of parliament (for example committee clerks or support offices like Uganda's Parliamentary Budget Office).
  • Which in practice are the best points of access – interested members, or officers? Do officers belong to an independent service of parliament, or are they civil servants whose primary allegiance is to the executive?

Some further resources

Some useful resources are available which can help researchers arrive at a better understanding of the roles of parliament, and may assist in identifying suitable points of contact with individual parliaments. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association represents 185 Commonwealth legislatures and their members, and produces a range of publications on a wide range of policy issues from a parliamentary perspective; it may also be able to help researchers to locate appropriate contacts in member parliaments.36 The Westminster Foundation for Democracy is a UK non-departmental public body (an arm’s-length government body sponsored by the FCO) which works with parliaments, political parties, and civil society groups to support democracy across the world. Since 2016 it has run its own research programme on themes relevant to democracy support, which has made use of partnerships with academic researchers.

Oxford is also the home to a number of organisations working in and on international development, public policy internationally, and specifically on research uptake by governments and parliaments internationally. Notably, there is an organisation called the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP). INASP focuses on collaborative research with universities internationally and they have particularly strong networks in Africa. In addition to their work with universities, INASP works with parliaments and governments to strengthen the use of research in public policy design and delivery. INASP is a founding member of Oxford for Research and Development (Ox4RD) which brings together a number of organisations working internationally. To explore engagement with INASP and with Ox4RD, researchers can contact the University of Oxford’s European and International team.

Finally, Guidance Note 8 in this series offers a self-diagnostic tool which is intended as an aid to researchers in reflecting on how they are engaging or intending to engage with policy processes, for what purpose, with whom and by what means.