Evidence-based policy making depends on effective communication of scientific and social science research-based information. Several barriers that bear on the ability to effectively communicate information are identified in the literature. Similarly, several enablers are described that can create more effective communication. Ultimately, enablers and barriers are two sides of the same coin. Many of enablers are mitigation strategies for barriers to communication.
Key concepts drawn from management, medical, and educational fields introduce several barriers to the use of research in policy making (Clark & Holmes, 2010; Delaney & Hastie, 2007; Helmsley-Brown, 2004; Kahan, 2010; Yang & Maxwell, 2011). The first is accessibility. Accessibility can be a barrier to communicating information in terms of the language used, format of the information, the method of dissemination, and the timeliness of its delivery (Helmsley-Brown, 2004). If the information is not accessible, it cannot be used.
A second barrier has to do with the relevance, or fit, of research and whether it bridges the gap between scientists and policy makers. Ultimately the expectations of a policy maker may predetermine the use of particular research reports. If the policy makers do not find the research useful or relevant to what they were looking for, future calls for research may be affected (positively or negatively). This outcome was seen in the case of fisheries scientists and managers in the European Union (Clark & Holmes, 2010; Delaney & Hastie, 2007).
A third barrier is trust: more specifically, lack of trust. For research to inform policy development, users of information must trust the quality, design, and validity of research. Trust depends on the relationships and roles of individual actors involved in research creation, transmission, and communication. If there is no trust in research, information will not be used in policy development (Helsmley-Brown, 2004).
The most crucial barriers to communication of research are organizational structure and people. The organizational structure of government is often siloed, inhibiting communication between units. Additionally, individuals often look after their own personal interests: if that means withholding information for personal gain, then that is likely what will happen.
Depending on the particular field of study, five key “mechanisms” or structures support the “use” of evidence-based research in policy making. The first is dissemination in terms of the form or presentation of research. Effective dissemination ensures information is received and understood (Nutley, Walter, & Davies, 2007). A second mechanism is interaction in terms of the connectivity between actors and communities. This enabler allows for a relationship to be built between communities, which helps in the use of information (Nutley et al., 2007). Another mechanism is social influence, which addresses the impact of “experts and peers” as well as champions who can sway various audiences or encourage particular audiences to give due attention to research. It is important to know an audience, and to be able to identify influences in information, in order to communicate it successfully (Nutley et al., 2007). A fourth mechanism is facilitation, which encompasses all of the supporting aspects required in practical, economic, psychological and organizational terms. A final mechanism, as identified by Nutley et al. (2007), is incentives and reinforcement, which are external and coercive means that seek to control individual and collective use of research within policy making better.
Other supporting research suggests additional enabling strategies that could mitigate potential barriers to communication of information. The first strategy aims to break down barriers relating to accessibility. The literature indicates that organizational support that builds appropriate contexts for individual and group reception of research includes training, personnel development, and the fostering of a culture that offers venues for collaborative and engaging activities to break down cognitive barriers (Hemsley-Brown, 2004).
Another strategy is to control the consumption or usability of research. Dissemination of information through “social marketing” and the “diffusion of innovation model,” particularly in times of crisis or rapid change, introduces the need for increased change, and therefore the tailoring of research formats and venues according to target users across various boundaries. This technique enhances the perceived value of research (Hemsley-Brown, 2004).
A third strategy that will enable communication is to provide support and strengthen trust amongst research practitioners and policy practitioners by building structural and organizational bridges between the two communities (Hemsley-Brown, 2004). Bringing these individuals together is a way to build communities of practitioners that can enhance the recognition of common grounds, rather than create mistrust.
A final strategy, as identified in the literature, is to alleviate the complexity of competing internal and external forces that impact individuals of diverse cultural backgrounds within organizations. Strong organizational leadership is needed to champion diverse sources of knowledge embedded within supportive internal organizational structures. This leadership should incorporate clear and common goals and for the organization as a means to create, and positively reinforce, an “evidence-informed culture” (Hemsley-Brown, 2004).
One major limitation to both the readings and the matter of barriers and enablers to communication is context. As indicated above, enablers and barriers to communication are two sides of the same coin. As a consequence, whether a factor is a barrier or an enabler is subject to interpretation based on the context of the situation.
It is clear that a significant number of barriers to communication of research information can occur. However, these barriers are contextual and can be mitigated if treated properly. Due to the complexity associated with barriers, it appears that the best way to avoid such obstacles is to open and maintain clear lines of communication. Personal communication allows silos to be broken down and information to be shared between individuals. Finally, it should be noted that strategic decisions can enable the communication of research information. For example, how well one knows an audience can be a determinant of the best way to communicate information.
Clark, R., & Holmes, J. (2010). Improving input from research to environmental policy: Challenges of structure and culture. Science and Public Policy, 37(10), 751-764.
Delaney, A., & Hastie, J. (2007). Lost in translation: Differences in role identities between fisheries scientists and managers. Ocean & Coastal Management, 50, 661-682.
Hemsley-Brown, J. (2004). Facilitating research utilisation: A cross-sector review of research evidence. The International Journal of Public Sector Management, 17(6), 534-552.
Kahan, D. (2010). Fixing the communications failure. Nature, 463(7279), 296-297.
Nutley, S.M., Walter, I., & Davies, H.T.O. (2007). Using evidence. How research can inform public services. Bristol: The Policy Press.
Yang, T., & Maxwell, T.A. (2011). Information-sharing in public organizations: A literature review of interpersonal, intra-organizational, and inter-organizational success factors. Government Information Quarterly, 28(2), 164-175.
Authors: Christine Gagnon, Danika Kowpak, and Sarah Ness
This blog post is part of a series of posts authored by students in the graduate course “The Role of Information in Public Policy and Decision Making,” offered at Dalhousie University.