By Ronald Munatsi

Policy dialogues can really contribute to evidence-informed policies. They provide a platform for policy-makers to consider different evidence, values,beliefs and experiences around a policy issue. And this is particularly important for sustainable development outcomes. However, the events need to be well organised and properly thought through as deliberate focused processes.

Over the last three years, the Zimbabwe Evidence Informed Policy Network (ZeipNET) has held a number of policy dialogues on policy issues ranging from youth empowerment and social engagement to improving industrial and trade policy coordination. Here are some of our reflections and insights into how to plan an effective policy dialogue.

You need a clear scope and specific objectives

If there is no coherent and intelligible scope including specificity in setting up objectives of the policy dialogue, there will be mixed expectations from participants. This may be further compounded by the fact that different people may use the term ‘policy dialogue to describe different things, resulting in varying expectations of the scope and purpose of the event. In ZeipNET’s early policy dialogue, the objectives were flexible and broadly defined, and this led to different participants having different expectations and ideas about what we were there to do.  In such a case the facilitator is faced with a delicate task of trying to balance different stakeholders’ expectations. Ultimately this led to a less productive dialogue. Having a short, closely organised event with a focused statement of the problem and a clear purpose can help in this regard.

Create meaningful partnerships

There is immense value in partnering with other organizations with the same or similar remit when organizing policy dialogues. This enables expanded coverage of interventions including better alignment with policy priorities. In ZeipNET’s case, our most successful dialogues were those in which we partnered with other organisations supporting the same or similar cause. For example, our forum on strengthening the Zimbabwe institutional landscape to support the use of evidence where we partnered the Africa Evidence Network. This dialogue brought more media and coverage and also attracted very relevant stakeholders.

The smaller in size and less on formal protocol the better

 There are different approaches to ensure effective dialoguing depending on the nature of the dialogue and what it intends to achieve. However strait-jacketed formal policy dialogues tend to stifle free, independent and innovative contributions. It gets worse when the number of both participants and speakers is bloated. A lot of time is wasted when participants and the facilitators or speakers alike observe multiple pleasantries and protocols. But if a dialogue has a relatively small number of invited focused stakeholders and little emphasis on official protocol there is likely to be more fluid policy deliberations. However, it should also be acknowledged that with some dialogues and the respective audiences you cannot get away without a certain level of protocol so you need to be aware of this and factor it in timings. In some cases, you may want to think about other formats, like knowledge cafes, which allow for much more informal and fluid discussions. It is partly because of this reason that the more informal knowledge cafes implemented by ZeipNET were more successful and more popular with different stakeholders as opposed to policy dialogues. An example is the one on use of evidence in gender mainstreaming.

 Be strategic about who to invite

Although conveners play a vital role in setting the policy dialogue agenda, the policy dialogue is participant-driven. The actual policy decisions and action points come from the participants, not the organisers. It is therefore imperative to strategically and systematically map stakeholders who should participate in the dialogues. Mapping stakeholders’ interests, relationship to the cause, and knowledge of issues to be discussed are all critical factors to consider. Another very important ingredient is the power of the participants not only to influence but also possess authority to actually make implementation decisions.

Good Facilitation is key

Policy dialogues, unlike other forums, are unique in that they are what one author termed ‘a form of conflict resolution.’ They are typically ‘deliberative meetings that address both politically controversial and technically complex aspects of an issue in a dispute.’ A s such the facilitator or moderator becomes key in the process. They send extremely important signals that regulate the dialogue. In most instances the participants have vested interests in the issues discussed and may be very passionate. The facilitator is supposed to be knowledgeable and also be in a position to provide a balanced environment for dialoguing. They need to manage both time and the power dynamics in the room, so as to have a balanced discourse.

Always provide feedback and follow-up

Lastly, it is so imperative for conveners or facilitators to follow up and even make solicitations for ongoing work associated with policy dialogue outcomes. Otherwise, the recommendations or other actions may just fizzle out. Even just a simple email to thank participants for taking part may yield tremendous results in terms of motivation and giving the stakeholders some impetus to act.

The Zimbabwe Evidence Informed Policy Network (ZeipNET) and the VakaYiko Consortium are supporting a series of policy dialogues with government partners in Zimbabwe under the Building Capacity to Use Research Evidence (BCURE) project. Policy dialogues seek to strengthen sustainability and knowledge sharing across the research-into-policy system by expanding professional networks for policy makers to engage with critical players like researchers and civic society organisations. This way they obtain the much-needed evidence to inform their policy decisions.

Ronald Munatsi is the Executive Director of the Zimbabwe Evidence Informed Policy Network (ZeipNET) The views expressed in this article are the author’s personal views and not necessarily the views of the organisation.

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