At the Mind the Gap conference in Cuernavaca, Mexico, the main theme was how to affect policy with hard evidence. Some would argue that this is the essence of why we evaluate programs.
We want to know what works and why so we can improve upon what we have, replicate what works or move away from what does not.
Although it seems reasonable, policy-making is about politics as much as it is about evidence, and as such researchers are now pondering the question of how to make results matter in policy-decisions.
Two panels in Cuernavaca addressed this key question.
In the first panel, Miguel Székely discussed the theory of change in which evidence based design would be implemented, evaluated and monitored, new evidence would emerge, changes and improvements would be decided on, and these would feed new policy decisions. This is the ideal.
Yet, Székely points out that in practice, very seldom are social policy decisions based on evidence, and additionally there is not enough evidence available on what works and under what circumstances. This is why researchers need to continue working on testing development interventions.
But, they also need to figure out how to translate those findings to evidence that can influence policy in a framework that includes politics.
Iqbal Dhaliwal of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab pointed to the need to generate more evidence to influence policy by promoting policy relevant evaluations, through intensive partnering with stakeholders to improve design and to replicate evaluation in different contexts.
Relevant evaluations are those that ask the questions that matter to policy-makers. An evaluation that is not addressing the main concerns of those making decisions will likely to have an impact on how policy is made.
Understanding the constraints of policy-makers and the context in which programs are defined is key to designing and evaluation that provides both rigorous evidence and effective evidence.
Felipe Kast, former Planning Minister of Chile, said it best in the closing plenary: “politicians need a good story”. He argues that researchers can provide the evidence needed to provide credibility for these stories to make sense. Rigorous evidence can move politics towards a common ground where those who disagree will agree based on the merits of the results.
This is an inescapable reality in the world of development, where scarce resources can be saved and put to better use if we have more relevant information about what works and what does not.