Evidence-informed decision-making (EIDM) in South Africa is growing: there is an increasing number of researchers and research institutions that are eager to share and tailor their research findings to decision-making at a policy and practice level. Vice-versa, policy-makers at all spheres of government increasingly realise the value of feeding research into decision-making processes, and actively demand evidence from researchers and practitioners. Likewise, practitioners themselves, e.g. NGO staff and community workers, have begun to interrogate the evidence-base behind their actions, unpacking the learning from their work for decision-making in government. This vibrant eco-system of evidence generation and use in decision-making in South Africa emerged largely informally and is clustered around the interaction between specific individuals and organisation. Arguably, this reflects the bottom-up nature of the field. However, as the field is growing in size and importance relationships and interactions are in need of formalized structures, e.g. embedding EIDM into organisational processes and having formal partnerships between researchers and decision-makers to ensure regular and ongoing exchange. We have seen lots of exciting initiatives in this regard in South Africa: the Department of Planning, Monitoring, and Evaluation is coordinating government demand and use of evaluations. Organisations such as the Centre for Learning, Evaluation and Results for Anglophone Africa (CLEAR-AA) and the programme for Development Research-Uptake in Sub-Saharan Africa (DRUSSA) support both researchers and decision-makers related to EIDM. University and civil society organisations, too, have set up formal units and centers to better package and channel their research evidence to decision-making. Currently, though there is no umbrella body brining these initiatives together in a structured manner. To fill this gap, a number of networks have been created that aim to improve and formalise the evidence and policy eco-system. The combined effort of these networks can be understood as creating a space for an emerging Community of Practice on EIDM in South Africa.
On 4 March 2016, two of these networks—the Africa Evidence Network and PAN Children—organised a joint roadshow to illustrate this EIDM community of practice and discuss ways on how to better work together within this community as well as to reflect on the experiences of support EIDM in South Africa. The roadshow was hosted by the Human Science Research Council (HSRC) in Cape Town and broadcasted live to the HSRC offices in Pretoria and Durban. Five networks and organisations were invited to present their efforts and learning from supporting the EIDM community of practice in South Africa:
- the Africa Evidence Network (AEN) (presentation by Precious Motha and Laurenz Langer)
- the Programme for Pro-Poor Policy Development’s (PSPPD) Learning Network (presentation by Terry Davies)
- the Good Governance Learning Network (GGLN) (presentation by Annuschka Williams)
- the Content Adviser to Portfolio Committee on Social Development ( presentation by Yolisa Nogenga)
- and PAN-African Children (presentation by Alison Bullen and Isabel Magaya)
Over the course of four hours a lively debate developed touching on efforts to build capacity to use evidence by National government departments as well as by legislators in Parliament; the need to better include civil society organisations in EIDM; be clear about what we mean be research evidence and decision-makers; as well as the need to better coordinate work among the various networks.
Build capacity to use evidence: We heard that South African government and parliament has a large appetite for evidence; alas, sometimes the effective use of research requires a special skills set: individuals need to be able to access and decipher research evidence while also understanding decision-making and administration in public service. They also need to able to manage political interests as well as the motives and biases of researchers. Surprisingly…such individuals are rare and there is since a rationale to extend EIDM capacity-building in South Africa, increasingly targeting provincial governments and legislators. Terry Davies reported a breadth of findings in this regard and alerted the audience to an upcoming evidence repository and EIDM learning algorithms.
Better include civil society organisations in EIDM: An encouraging outcome of the roadshow was the strong civil society presence at the event. The presenters were challenged by a number of audience members why EIDM seems to center around research and decision-makers in government: isn’t there a breadth of knowledge held by practitioners on the ground? In a lively debate, there was consensus that such tacit knowledge is indeed part of what constitutes evidence in EIDM, but that it is challenging to formalise this knowledge (and maybe even not desirable). Government decision-makers pointed out that often evidence created by NGOs has a slight advocacy favour and that we need to speak a common language, which might require practitioners and civil society to change their communication channels. In sum, there is demand to draw stronger from tacit knowledge and practitioners and civil society form part of the EIDM community of practice; yet, we need better processes to uncover and package this knowledge so that it can be used and understood more widely.
Be clear about what we mean be research evidence and decision-makers: Linked to the above, a wider debate developed about what we mean by evidence. In reality, not each piece of research can be consulted during decision-making and neither is each piece of research policy-relevant. Researchers and civil society organisations were therefore urged to think carefully whether their particular piece of evidence—given the overall supply of research—can claim importance for decision-making. As much as evidence needs to be relevant, it also needs to be trustworthy. The role of research synthesis, i.e. combining in a systematic and rigorous manner the many single pieces of research evidence, might be underappreciated in some sectors in South Africa. However, there seems to be a misconception that decision-makers are only to be found in government. For example, as much as we need to get better at using the tactic knowledge of NGOs and civil society organisations, these organisations should be using research evidence to inform their practice too. The divide between production and use of research evidence is since not clear-cut and the principle of using evidence to inform one’s decision does not apply exclusively to government.
Better coordinate work among the various networks: A concluding insight from the roadshow focused on the realisation that we, as networks to formalise the EIDM community of practice, need to get better at coordinating and formalising our own work! Often the relationships between and remits of different networks are not well-defined or discussed. There is large scope to improve collaborate in future, and improve the way in which we share information with officials and amongst the various networks themselves. While the respective networks all fulfill different functions in the EIDM landscape, we need to draw more from our commonalities to support the EIDM community of practice in South Africa. The roadshow ended with an agreement that the conversations started should be continued and PAN children and the AEN agreed to consolidate the roadshow’s learning and plan a follow up event.
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