Understanding organisations that provide evidence for policy

This blog post is based on the Evidence & Policy article, ‘Knowledge brokering organisations: a new way of governing evidence’.

New organisations have emerged in different countries to help inform policymaking. Different from think tanks and academic research centres, these Knowledge Brokering Organisations (KBOs) attempt to influence policy by mobilising evidence. Our research examines how their origins and roles are rooted in politics, and explores their need to build credibility and legitimacy in their policy community. Despite examining KBOs on different continents – the Africa Centre for Evidence, the Mowat Centre in Canada and the Wales Centre for Public Policy – we show how they have become a tool mobilised in similar ways by their respective governments.


What are KBOs?

KBOs have emerged in the evidence-policy space as new organisations aiming to mobilise – ‘broker’ – evidence from research and knowledge into policy. How far they differ from think tanks or academic research centres often comes down to how each KBO makes sense of their origins and activities. There are three main characteristics which set KBOs apart from other organisations:

  1. Evidence is central to their work, mission and practices.
  2. Their specific structures, relationships and practices: e.g. staff with multiple/boundary spanning background, knowledge brokering tools.
  3. Their closeness to government, – KBOs often being funded by government.


Why do KBOs emerge?

Despite working in different contexts, the three KBOs we studied resembled each other in many ways. All three had developed similar narratives of emergence and the roles they play in the policymaking process. For instance, the KBOs spoke about how their existence was required because there was a lack of capacity for evidence provision within government. There was also a desire to create a ‘one-stop evidence shop’. Context nevertheless mattered, notably local histories, structures and the role played by key individuals, which all influenced the role of evidence in policy.


What do KBOs do?

The roles played by the KBOs were a constant ‘work-in-progress’. They would build on different types of legitimacies and play multiple and changing roles. For instance, they might generate new evidence, synthesise existing evidence, advise policymakers, and sometimes advocate for a particular intervention. KBOs constantly balanced their independence and rigour (usually drawing on their academia-like skills and staff) with being useful to the governments that they sought to inform.

The fact that these KBOs tended to do more and more and develop new types of outputs, made their allegiances difficult to unpick, something which could cause difficulties for external observers examining their accountabilities. One of the sites we were studying – the Mowat Centre – was abolished when a new government was elected during our fieldwork. This event illustrates how KBOs’ existence depends on the political context of the time. KBOs must constantly demonstrate their impact to government whilst also emphasising their independence.


How do KBOs relate to policymakers?

All the KBOs we studied were involved in complex power relations with policymakers. While mentioning the importance of traditional enablers of evidence-informed policymaking (EIPM) such as trust and good communications, they often influenced policy in more subtle and informal ways such as shaping how policymakers understand and speak about evidence. Governments appreciated KBOs for their informal style and experiential and tacit knowledge. These characteristics are built on staff experience and institutional history. Often the work of KBOs went beyond standard evidence transfer, into more complex advising and brokering roles.

By highlighting the experiences of these three organisations, our research helps improve understanding of how evidence is mobilised into policy by KBOs. Specifically, we show that KBOs are a new EIPM tool that seems to be mobilised in similar ways by different governments. This opens avenues for further research that examines these organisations over time. More comparative research will help to understand how these outfits as well as other tools in the EIPM landscape are used by different policymaking systems according to different agendas, histories and cultures.


This article is reposted from the Evidence and Policy Blog