I travelled a couple of weeks ago with colleagues from the Knowledge Sector Initiative (KSI) to the city of Probolinggo, in the eastern part of Java. To get there you have to fly from Jakarta to Malang (ca. 1 hour and 15 minutes) and then drive for about two hours. It is a nice car ride. There is traffic on the road but you can also enjoy green rice fields, sugar cane plantations and the smooth profile of mountains and volcanoes not too far at the horizon. The municipality of Probolinggo has about 200.000 inhabitants. It looks like other provincial cities of similar size: active during the day and very quiet at night.
We travelled to Probolinggo to meet officials at the Mayor’s office and at line agencies responsible for health and education. We were hosted by the staff of an USAID-funded project which operates in Probolinggo, Kinerja.
What we wanted to discuss is the possibility to collaborate, during the next few years, with the local administration and Kinerja on finding new ways to enhance the use of research evidence and data in local policy making.
During the first meeting at the office of the Mayor we learned that the local administration has embarked in a Open Government initiative based on three key points: 1) Transparency; 2) Accountability; and 3) Innovation. While the Open Government initiative the moment describes an aspiration, in four years time, at election time, it could become the indicator used by voters to assess the performance of the local administration.
One of the meetings was held in a large function room, with a high ceiling and wooden desks organised in a U-shape. In front of each seat small modern microphones connected to modern loudspeakers system.
I gave the usual presentation with some basic information about KSI, the policy cycle and the different types of evidence that can be used at different stages, and, to conclude, an example of the types of tools that we could test: evidence gap analysis, analysis of the quality of evidence, evidence mapping, etc.
The presentation was ok and we had a couple of round of questions and answers with the participants who were mainly from government offices. What was clear from the questions is that it was not clear to them what KSI could provide to them (or maybe I was just not clear in my explanation). I think that the challenge is that presenting KSI as being (among other things) a project which is about strengthening the demand and use of research evidence in policy making and which is relatively open in terms of sectors and policy issues can create some confusion.
At one point in the discussion the word good governance came up and that turned the discussion by 180 degrees. Linking the idea of evidence-based policy making to good governance is like giving it a home where it can join other members of the good governance family: transparency, accountability, participation, etc. The contribution that (research) evidence can make to strengthen that home becomes clearer when it is framed as part of good governance. Evidence and analysis can help to show that transparency has improved, accountability is stronger, participation is more inclusive, etc.
An important lesson from the two days in Probolinggo is that researchers and practitioners like me who dive into the ideas of evidence-based policy making more or less permanently risk to float at an abstract level that does not connect with real world sectors, services, and problems.
The people we met in Probolinggo know very well that more evidence and research is needed to monitor performance and progress in the policy agenda as well as to identify and try to solve very concrete problems such as reduce the time to issue business permits, strengthen the management autonomy of health centres , improve primary school through better and more participatory school-based management, etc. In our work with KSI we have to avoid being too abstract and we should not be afraid to make the link to those real problems as way to strengthen the use of evidence in local policy making.
In our discussions in Probolinggo we agreed that the demand and use of evidence has to be seen as an element of good governance. We have now three years to experiment and learn together. I look forward to it.