How More and Better Funding Can Unlock the Potential of Evidence-to-Policy Partnerships

The COVID-19 crisis emphasizes the need for high-quality, timely, and context-specific evidence—for both effective policy responses and political credibility. Since the mid-2000s, there has been significant growth in the scope and funding of evaluation-focused organizations, the establishment of embedded evidence labs in governments and multilateral agencies, stronger evaluation capacity in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), the rise of effective altruism, and other areas of progress. Nonetheless, persistent challenges continue to limit the use of evaluation findings by policymakers at both the global and national levels in all countries, leaving potential social and economic gains on the table.

In response to these challenges and building on progress to date, CGD recently launched a Working Group led by Amanda Glassman and Ruth Levine to consider how the next generation of investments in impact evaluations—as part of the broader evidence and data ecosystem—can enhance their usefulness, responsiveness, and relevance for public policy decision-making. To inform the Working Group’s deliberations, we commissioned background work on the role of evidence-to-policy partnerships–including evaluation units within governments, knowledge translation platforms, and donor-funded networks–that serve as a mechanism for strengthening the demand for and use of policy-relevant evidence.

Today, we are excited to launch a background paper by our colleague Abeba Taddese that explores how these partnerships work, barriers that hinder progress, and ideas for what funders can do to help advance partnership models (alongside a complementary piece focused on rapid rigorous evaluations). The paper, based primarily on desk research supplemented with expert interviews, is not meant to be an exhaustive review of all partnership models, but to examine illustrative examples and draw out insights that could be useful for rethinking how development funders channel support going forward.  

The paper puts forth a clear message: to realize the full potential of evidence-to-policy partnerships in increasing returns to policy decisions, donors must implement new funding models that redistribute power away from their own institutions and agendas and instead advance long-term relationship-building centered around the contexts, questions, and priorities of government policymakers.

We invite you to read through the paper’s rich insights in full and to join us on September 24 for a CGD seminar with Taddese and other speakers to continue the conversation. In the meantime, we share our key takeaways here.

The value of partnerships

COVID-19 has underscored the value of evidence-to-policy partnerships that allow for systematic collaboration between evidence producers and decision-makers to inform policy and practice-level decisions and guide response efforts. But even outside periods of crises, research and experience suggest that it can be difficult to advance the use of evidence in decision-making without sustained collaboration between research communities and policy actors. Government decision-makers benefit from the improved access to evidence, specialized expertise, research methods, and enhanced credibility, while researchers and funding partners can access policy-relevant datasets and opportunities for scalable influence.

Figure. The what and why of evidence-to-policy partnerships

But simply forming a partnership doesn’t guarantee better evidence use. Misaligned incentives between governments, researchers, and funding partners often hold partnerships back. To name a few: researchers tend to conduct studies over longer timeframes that may not align with policymakers’ more immediate decision needs; short-term and highly “projectized” funding structures hinder the nonlinear collaboration that is required to build sustained partnerships; funders’ research agendas may differ from the priorities of governments and local researchers; funders can perpetuate a “success cartel” that squanders opportunities to learn from failure; governments can be reticent about sharing findings publicly; and academic structures tend to place greater value on journal publications and other tangible outputs, rather than capacity strengthening and uses of contextual knowledge.

Disentangling entrenched incentives and barriers to sustained, long-term partnerships  

Taddese calls specifically on funders to revisit approaches that perpetuate some of these misaligned incentives and to restructure support to better realize the value of partnership models for all involved, with an eye towards thinking differently about who they fund to conduct evaluations. Table 1 summarizes the main observations, examples, and ideas gleaned from the paper. We highlight four of the key recommendations below:

1. Anchor evidence-to-policy efforts in country-level institutional structures

To give policymakers more power to shape and pursue their own research agendas, funders should provide flexible, long-term support to country-level institutional structures (including evaluation units or policy labs) that have linkages to multiple levels of government and senior leadership with decision-making power and help ensure evaluation agendas are country-led. For example, the African Health Observatory Platform on Health Systems and Policy enables national research institutions and government policymakers to build country-led research agendas together, spurring research that responds to LMIC governments’ evidence needs and reform opportunities.

Long-term external financing should complement existing efforts, such as the Global Evaluation Initiative, which convenes governments, development organizations, and evaluation experts in order to pool financial and technical resources and help governments track the progress of their policies and programs. In practice, this approach will require funders to have more visibility into existing initiatives, specific needs for additional support, and the potential value-add of different partners.  

2. Prioritize capacity strengthening and challenge power imbalances

Weak global and national responses to COVID-19 have shined a light on the inadequacy of data and evidence infrastructure around the world. Further, growing calls over recent years to reckon with and disrupt the ways in which international development perpetuates coloniality offer an opportunity to revisit capacity strengthening for evidence generation and use.

Funders should invest in capacity strengthening approaches that challenge power dynamics and provide more equitable funding for research institutions in resource-constrained settings to build country-led research capacity. This includes support for national universities and other teaching institutions alongside efforts to challenge existing norms around authorship, for example, to support the participation of local researchers as key contributors. The West Africa Capacity-building and Impact Evaluation program is a prime example of a government-led initiative to promote regional governments’ capacity to develop and implement policy-relevant research agendas.

3. Strengthen coordination of evidence-to-policy partnerships

Funders in this space could also benefit from sharing more information with each other about their own priorities and target audiences, enabling them to better coordinate their engagements with senior government officials and identify opportunities to pool resources. Formal country-level structures could bring greater coherence to national evidence and evaluation agendas. A local evaluation group modeled on multistakeholder local education groups—which bring together development partners, donors, teacher associations, civil society organizations, and private providers to design, implement, and monitor country-level education plans, and are led by national governments—offers one potential model. The People’s Action for Learning (PAL) Network is a partnership of 15 education organizations across 14 LMIC countries that hosts policy dialogues with government partners and conducts citizen-led learning assessments to drive greater policymaker accountability—demonstrating another example of locally owned coordination and knowledge sharing.

4. Change funding structures to support long-term partnerships

In line with their funding cycles, many donors continue to favor short-term projects that focus on “quick-wins” and have predetermined outputs and results that are hard to square with the messy, unstructured realities of government policymaking. To cultivate trustworthy researcher-policymaker relationships at the core of a successful “evidence ecosystem,” funders should consider allocating a percentage of project budgets to partnership building and policy translation as a routine, recurring cost. They should also move toward more flexible reporting standards and away from rigid, outputs-focused indicators so that grantees can stay flexible and respond to their partners’ needs and policy reform opportunities. Relatedly, donors should provide flexible funding over longer, multi-year timeframes to align with the complexities of systems change.

Table 1. Summary of observations, select examples of partnerships, and relevant interview quotes

Relationships matter

Observation Select examples of relevant partnership approaches Select expert interviewee quote
Relationships are critical to the success of a partnership Commitment to engaging with partners at every stage of research (Transfer Project); using legal authority to promote co-creation of evaluations (Sinergia); matchmaking researchers with policymakers (DIWA, EGAP) “Working with government is hard, but you can’t engage effectively on policy issues without strong relationships."

Convening power is critical

Observation Select examples of relevant partnership approaches Select expert interviewee quote
Partnerships need convening power to be effective Working with local partners to create neutral spaces for ongoing dialogue (Utafiti Sera); facilitating collaborative learning networks that bring diverse stakeholders together—policymakers, researchers, funders (Transfer Project); hosting policy dialogues for researchers, policymakers, practitioners, and other non-state actors (PAL Network) “Local organizations have a better understanding of issues and policy opportunities."

Capacity strengthening is an important dimension

Observation Select examples of relevant partnership approaches Select expert interviewee quote
Most partnerships have a capacity-strengthening component aimed at addressing barriers that limit the engagement of government actors, citizens, and other partners in decision processes Top-down and bottom-up training programs (DPME, South Africa); flexibly aligning support with government capacity needs (IDinsight’s support in helping the MoME build capacity in conducting rapid evaluations); peer and collaborative learning focus that builds trust through the process of learning together (Transfer Project, EGAP, EVIPNet, International Network for Government Science Advice) “There aren’t that many champions in government, so we tend to rally around one person and compete for their time rather than coordinating efforts.”

Misaligned incentives slow progress

Observation Select examples of relevant partnership approaches Select expert interviewee quote
Researcher and funder incentives for engaging in evidence-to-policy partnerships are not always aligned with government priorities, even when policy change is the goal Long-term embedded partnerships to work alongside government and deepen understanding of local context (IDinsight); investing in personal relationships to develop understanding of government priorities and gain access to information about reform priorities (Transfer Project); introducing requirements to ensure research is decided on and designed with practitioners (EGAP) “There is more funding going to publishing health research and to data science, AI stuff. What do you do?”

“Donor X only pays for what you say you will do in the project; we have zero flexibility in our work.”

What needs to happen next

The development research community currently lacks a shared understanding of (1) what it looks like to successfully institutionalize evidence use and (2) which partnership models are best suited to specific policy questions and contexts. Future research should focus on how best to assess partnerships, adjust partnership approaches based on the specific policy needs at hand, and regularly apply lessons learned, including on progress towards building a culture of evidence use.

To this end, funder support for routine diagnostic processes within governments and a standardized theory of change for embedding evaluation evidence in decision-making may be valuable. These and additional research efforts could inform a compelling investment case on why and how funders should support partnership building as an important intervention in and of itself and as part of a commitment to putting power in the hands of those who best understand their local contexts.

Join us on Friday, September 24 at 9:30am ET for a CGD seminar to discuss this work in more detail. Ahead of and during the event, please share your reactions and questions in the below comments section, on Twitter @CGDev #CGDtalks, or by email at [email protected]. We look forward to hearing from you.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.