My summer project: research uptake and evidence-informed policymaking in Nigeria at the Overseas Development Institute

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MPP student Tobe with his ODI colleagues

One of my cardinal objectives for applying to the Master of Public Policy (MPP) programme at the Blavatnik School of Government was exploring how to improve communications between think tanks and policymakers in Nigeria. My own experience working with Nigerian think tanks has taught me that, regardless of the rigour and robustness of research, poor communications strategies regarding recommended policy options render the efforts of think tanks irrelevant to governance. This idea not only influenced my optional and applied module selections during the MPP, but also led me to opt for the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), a globally respected think tank with track record of policy influence, as my host for the MPP summer project.

MPP student Tobe with his ODI colleagues
MPP student Tobe (middle) with some RAPID and INASP team members at ODI.

At ODI, I worked with the Research and Policy in Development Programme (RAPID), which focuses on analysing the relationship between research, policy and practice, and is known for its effective research uptake toolkits (such as RAPID Outcome Mapping Approach, Research Excellence Framework, Communications Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning toolkit). These toolkits are aimed at improving relationships between researchers and governments, as well as integrating local knowledge and research-based evidence into policymaking. Strategic support from Louise Shaxson (Head of RAPID), Professor Stefan Dercon (my academic supervisor) and Dr Folarin Gbadebo-Smith (Director-General of the Nigerian Institute for Social and Economic Research – NISER), whose organisation was the case study for my research, enabled me to clearly conceptualise the problem, conduct the study and make valid recommendations.

NISER is Nigeria’s premier socioeconomic think tank and was selected for my case study due to its expected strategic role as a government-funded think tank that serves as an institutional memory for governance and development policies in Nigeria. Despite NISER’s existing potential to play a central role in policymaking, it requires an effective communications strategy which can only be co-created through an iterative process; thus, I was in constant conversation with NISER staff, most of whom generously shared their experiences through phone interviews and facilitated my interviews with other Nigerian government officials and local think tanks. In writing the project recommendations, I was also able to leverage informal conversations with ODI staff and participant observation during weekly business and team meetings by the RAPID programme, as well as the ODI’s communications and external affairs department.

The RAPID team were phenomenal with support for the project: I was kept up-to-date on my progress through weekly meetings with the team lead, who also facilitated the interviews with think tank and development organisation staff that were an integral part of my project; I learnt how to use MAXQDA for qualitative analysis from RAPID Research Fellow Alexandra Löwe; and I developed my presentation skills with the support of Aaron Bailey-Athias, RAPID’s communications officer. Other members of the team graciously reviewed my post-fieldwork presentation and critiqued the draft findings and recommendations. Also, attending an Artificial Intelligence exhibition with the RAPID team deepened my introspection on how the fourth industrial revolution and AI could redefine research communications and evidence-informed policymaking in the 21st century.

Tobe presents findings from his summer project to the RAPID team
Tobe presents draft findings from his summer project to ODI's RAPID team.

While research evidence is important to ensure objectivity and validate policy options, my findings on this project revealed that it would be naïve to assume that only research-based evidence should inform policy. Historical and structural realities, as well as the political economy of a society, often lead to the emergence of informal powers, which influence policymakers based on interests. Furthermore, digitalisation complicates the policy process as increased citizen access to policymakers (through social media) is redefining state-society relations and policymaking. Therefore, to ensure research uptake, research professionals need to adopt an integrated, strategic and iterative communications model while engaging policy makers and society.

In summary, my ODI experience was memorable and productive. I am grateful to the Africa Initiative for Governance who funded my scholarship to study at Oxford, because the things I learnt from modules such as Economics for Public Policy, the Politics of Policymaking, Evidence and Public Policy, Communications, Policy Challenge, and Diversity and its Discontents ­– among others – were instrumental to the conceptualisation and successful execution of my summer project. Going forward, I acknowledge that this is a work in progress and look towards collaborating with NISER and other Africa-based think tanks to identify ways of improving research uptake and evidence-informed policies within the continent.

Tobechukwu Nneli is a Master of Public Policy student and AIG 2018/2019 Scholar. He recently concluded his summer project at the Overseas Development Institute, London.