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Making research evidence count: insights from Finland’s Policy Analysis Unit


After more than a decade in Asia working to build governments’ use of evidence, I recently moved back to Finland. Here I’ve found commitment to evidence and innovation like nowhere else.

Kokeileva Suomi or Experimental Finland is a great example of the nation’s ‘readiness to innovate’. Set up by Prime Minister Juha Sipilä in 2015, it tests policies at local level and scales up those that work. For example, Finland’s experimental universal basic income scheme, which made international headlines in 2017.

Equally important, however, is that Kokeileva is coupled with careful planning. Each year, the Prime Minister’s Office publishes a plan to make sure that the ministries have access to the research they need to tackle varied and complex social problems.

To learn more about how the Finnish Government manages research evidence, I travelled to the Prime Minister’s Office in Helsinki. I met with Science Specialist Anna-Kaisa Lähteenmäki-Smith and Project Manager Sari Löytökorpi from the Government Policy Analysis Unit, which is in charge of coordinating the annual research plan.

The following interview offers insights into what lies behind Finland’s commitment to research evidence, and how its annual plan operates. Having worked with governments around the world to improve evidence-informed decision-making processes, I think there’s a lot that other governments can learn from Finland.

What values underpin Finland’s investment in research evidence?

Openness and transparency are important values in Finnish society. Citizens expect transparency and openness from politicians and civil servants.

The research we fund ultimately seeks to improve society. It’s not the government’s research. We use tax payers’ money, so it’s everybody’s research. The results are owned by, and accessible to the media, civil society, citizens, researches, and so on.

That is why we ask grant recipients to include a clear communication strategy in their proposal for funding. This must describe how they intend to share and make available the research results and data through different channels, activities and knowledge products.

Our opinion is that the more openness and critical discussion there is in the planning stages of policy-making, the better the quality. The research we fund makes a contribution and supports that process.

What does ‘impact’ mean for the policy analysis unit, and how do you measure it?

Impact matters for our work. Two areas in particular: the quality of the research results and products, and the quality of the research process.

The outputs of the research we fund include for instance data, reports, policy recommendations, dialogue, and so on.

We define results as the availability, visibility and utilization of knowledge in the form of information, knowledge, expertise, assessment, solutions, concepts, and models. The results contribute to direct effects (i.e. a better basis for drafting regulations and making decisions, closer cooperation between knowledge producers and public debate) and indirect effects (i.e. more efficient and better-quality policy implementation, participatory decision-making, improved trust and ownership).

We use different tools to gather this information. One tool is a questionnaire which we send out to policy-makers, civil servants, and researches involved in the projects we fund. In this survey we ask for opinions about the quality of our work, the support we provided throughout the research process, the clarity of guidelines we publish, the dialogue and cooperation established during the research process.

We also ask whether the policy decisions have been informed by the research results and, if not, why. In other words, we conduct a self-assessment which looks at the quality of the research as well as the quality of the dialogue during the research process.

In ‘The politics of evidence-based policy making’, Paul Cairney writes that it is difficult not to agree with the idea of using evidence to inform policy. But in reality, it is difficult to do and ultimately, evidence is just a small part of policy-making. How does this resonate with your experience?

It is not easy to bring evidence into the policy-making process, particularly research-based evidence.  There are a few challenges that are intrinsic to research-based knowledge.

The first is that it is not possible to guarantee that the results of a research project are actually used in the policy decisions. Politicians and civil servants also bring their personal and political values into the decision-making processes and sometimes these can reduce the influence of research-based results.

A second issue is that research results are unlikely to provide a straight-forward yes or no answer to any specific policy problem. Research results can suggest options, compare the costs and benefits of the different alternatives and choices, but there will always be a degree of uncertainty. In the end, research-based evidence is just one element of the policy-making process.

However, it can be an important element. Research findings help to generate discussion. They can even help to reach a shared view on a specific problem,  for example between the parties in government and those in opposition.

The debate and discussion over research results can be a starting point for a compromise which is often what policy decisions ultimately are.

The 2017 research plan included 42 research topics, with a budget of €10.4 million. How did you decide the research topics?

All research and evidence funded through this instrument is aligned with the overall government strategy and policy agenda. The specific research topics are selected through a process of consultation with all ministries.

We do not do this alone. The government working group for the coordination of research, foresight and assessment activities (or the TEA Working Group) plays a very important role.

The TEA Working Group includes representatives of all ministries and has the task to strengthen horizontal monitoring of research, foresights and assessment activities across ministries. They are a key actor in the selection of the research topics that untimely are included in the yearly research plan.

A good selection process requires good research questions and these are obviously difficult to formulate, especially because not all civil servants have been trained as researchers. Often politicians and civil servants come up with research needs and questions that are too broad or too narrow.

This is one of the functions of our unit: work with ministries to ensure that the research questions are specific, relevant to policy-making and researchable.

An additional area of our work is to check the extent to which the research questions that arise have already been researched. To do so, we collaborate closely with other teams and units here at the Prime Minister’s Office, such as the Foresight team or the Knowledge Management Unit. The Knowledge Management Unit, helps us to search and find whether a research has already been conducted earlier on.

And how do you break down the research questions that come from ministries but are too broad?

We are testing some new approaches to do this in addition to helping directly with feedback and comments. This year we have had three co-creation workshops for formulating knowledge needs and research projects.

In a nutshell, the process functions around bringing together academics, policy researchers, experts and analysts from relevant organisations. They sit together discuss what the knowledge need is, what is already known and what specific questions could help provide new and relevant answers to policy-makers.

We are happy with the results so far and we will continue testing this approach. We find it useful not only because it helps clarify research questions and methodology, but because it establishes a dialogue between researchers and policymakers from the very beginning which then continues throughout the research activities through, for example, the discussion about preliminary results.

This article was originally published on ODI Insight. Read the original article.

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