By Richmond Commodore and George Boateng
In recent years, the use of evidence-informed policy and practice has gained speed as part of broader efforts to boost the use of research evidence to improve the policy formulation and implementation process. While the initial momentum came from donors who increasingly demanded that development policies be informed by research-based evidence, this trend has been sustained and intensified as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the amount of evidence[i] at the disposal of policy makers remains overwhelming and complex, and the capacity of policymakers to effectively apply evidence in the policymaking process is impeded by a lack of skills and due to biases and complex political processes.[ii]
A worrying trend in Ghana, highlighted in a recent study[iii] released by ACET which explored the political economy of policymaking and the evidence ecosystem, is that governments often selectively use evidence to support preconceived positions, rather than build on evidence to inform their stances.
Despite extensive systems in place for evidence-generation by government and non-government institutions, the use evidence in policy decision therefore remains severely curtailed in Ghana. Other factors that contribute to this include a lack of access to evidence, limited coordination between state institutions, weak funding, misaligned incentives, and a lack of trust in the generated evidence.
Crucially, despite the myriad research institutions, think tanks and civil society organizations, the country still lacks a comprehensive framework for promoting an effective state–civil society interface, both at the national and local levels.
Engaging CSOs, research institutes, think tanks, and academia
In the evidence ecosystem, the government’s formal administrative and research systems are the primary evidence producers. Development partners, civil society organizations (CSOs), think tanks and research institutes also generate evidence through their research projects and implementation of programs, which are valuable for policy decision making, design and implementation.
These institutions are often consulted by governments, political parties, and parliament on various policy issues. Besides being active stakeholders in generating evidence within the country’s evidence ecosystem, think tanks and research institutes play a unique intermediary role. As intermediaries, they bridge research with policy formulation, by simplifying and curating research evidence needed to make policy formulation more inclusive while holding the government accountable.
In working with socially excluded populations, CSOs and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have some influence at the district level, where they monitor, directly engage with policy implementation, and archive these experiences. These institutions tend to have the technical expertise to translate research evidence into policy briefs for easy assimilation and uptake by government.
Nonetheless, the impact of CSOs, think tanks and research institutes in terms of research uptake and policy formulation is muted for three reasons.
Firstly, think tanks are perceived as ‘friends’ of the opposition and ‘enemies’ of the ruling government. This is because they tend to be critical of government positions on various policy issues, and because opposition parties often consult them in a bid to obtain relevant information and analysis to critique government policies and hold them accountable. As a result, political and regulatory environments tend to be hostile towards think tanks and NGOs whose views are frequently opposed to the government position on key policy issues.
Secondly, research from universities tends to have less impact since promotion practices reward publication output rather than uptake. This sets up incentives that ensure researchers[iv] publish many journal articles but fewer book chapters and policy briefs, which tend to have greater impact on policy formulation.
Lastly, there is a lack of institutionalized platforms for disseminating research to policymakers. Academia and research institutes produce the bulk of research evidence in Ghana, but they have no funding allocated for policy engagement. Think tanks and CSOs, on the other hand, generally try to engage governments on the findings of their research. However, without institutionalized systems for research uptake by the public sector, the nature of these engagements is largely ad hoc and uncoordinated, and their direct impact on policy interventions is hard to quantify. Think tanks and CSOs are also constrained by a lack of financing, autonomy and integrity issues, and limited staff capacity.
Some institutions in Ghana have distinguished themselves in terms of constructive engagement of CSOs, think tanks, and research institutes through institutionalized platforms. Some few years ago, the Ministry of Finance for instance, introduced monthly brown bag seminar series where research institutions, CSOs, NGOs and representatives from academia are invited to share their research works with the ministry. On some occasions, academics and experts from research institutions are also invited for stakeholder consultations organized by the Parliament of Ghana, but this is not a regular occurrence.
Opportunities for evidence-informed decision-making
Ghana’s political landscape and evidence ecosystem present major opportunities for boosting the instrumental and embedded use of evidence for policy decision making through institutionalized platforms for engaging research institutions, CSOs, think tanks and academia.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted an already growing political commitment to obtaining and using sound evidence to inform policy decision-making and an increasing space for civic engagement on various policy issues. The country has a host of evidence producers outside government who are producing top-notch research – at least three think tanks based in Ghana have consistently featured in the top 20 think tanks in Africa.[v] The country also has a large number of universities that are considered leading African centers of excellence in teaching and research.
The missing linchpin is the presence of institutionalized platforms that constructively bring users and producers of evidence together. Institutionalized effective platforms would enable government institutions to seamlessly assess and interrogate research evidence from these institutions, while also informing the research agenda. This could spur the undertaking of research that is relevant to priority policy issues by the government, involve governments in research process in a structured way, and make research findings practical and relevant to developmental challenges.
[i] By evidence we mean the following four broad and overlapping categories of information used in policymaking and programming to ensure that ‘evidence for policymaking and programming’ is not solely defined as academic research: (a) statistical and administrative data; (b) analytical evidence from research; (c) evidence from citizens, stakeholders, and role players; and (d) evidence from M&E.