Research uptake: Learning from policy makers in Kenya

By Lynda Keeru, Kate Hawkins and Robinson Karuga

Since our inception, we have placed a great deal of emphasis on communications and research uptake. Our initial project planning included a stakeholder mapping and policy and practice analysis which led us to prioritise this area as an integral part of our research on community health workers. It was underpinned by a number of principles that guided our interventions: 1) that the research uptake process is complex and non-linear; 2) researchers are more likely to have an impact if there is early and ongoing engagement with stakeholders; 3) embeddedness in the context and with policy makers and processes is crucial; 4) outputs and processes need to be tailored to audiences; 5) identifying allies and champions supports the research uptake process; 6) using existing channels of communication rather than creating new ones provides value for money; and 7) monitoring progress and remaining adaptable is important.

We took advantage of our annual meeting in Nairobi to engage with health policy makers from the national and county level to better understand how they use evidence in policy and the weaknesses and strengths of current systems of researcher-decision maker interactions. We will use this knowledge to shape our communications work as we move forward.

What evidence is used for decision making?

We heard from national and county level government officials that that a range of data sources are used by decision makers including: desk reviews; online databases; evidence from development partner projects; and routine data from the community (for example from dialogue days and meeting plans), facilities and hospitals. A great deal of routine data is collected by Community Health Volunteers and analysed by their supervisors, Community Health Extension Workers.

Despite a wide array of data sources this evidence is not put into use most of the times. There is a weakness in the culture of using data and data analysis needs to be built into management meetings. Analysis and use of data can happen on different levels. However, some levels of staff do not have the skills or the means to do this.  The quality of data is sometimes very compromised, which leads to wishy washy reports.

How can evidence be aligned with policy needs?

Although not all evidence generated through research leads to policy change, there is a need for operational research to generate ready to use data. This research should be guided by the Ministry of Health’s research agenda rather than being imposed from the outside. We heard that too often partners come to counties with their own ideas about what they want to research – there is no ‘partnership’ in this approach. It was agreed that decision makers at all levels need to be involved in the research process from the outset. It increases the likelihood of use and that the research itself is fit for purpose.

There are also weaknesses in the mechanisms for sharing data. Universities often fail to engage policy makers. Data needs to be made accessible – not just in a format understood by academics or presented in a conference in ‘Copenhagen’ – but demonstrating local solutions in a manner that local stakeholders can understand. Research should not just be disseminated but the communication of data should also be tailored to the politics and context of the where academics are working. The policy makers told us that timing matters in terms of research uptake, there is a need to take advantage of windows of opportunity for change, and spotting and engaging with these chances is easier if you are based locally.

How is policy made and implemented?

Research can inform policy and policy can inform research. Most policies are set by Presidential or Ministerial Directive which are guided by research. One challenge is the gap between written policies and their implementation. Research institutions should make in effort to better understand these challenges and offer concrete suggestions for how they can be overcome. In Kenya this will need to take into account the process of devolution and how this is playing out in the health system.

We heard that researcher and policy maker incentives aren’t always aligned and so researchers are rewarded for peer review publications which are not so useful for decision making. This is a weakness in the system of knowledge generation. Forums like government Technical Working Groups can be a place where researchers can share knowledge. But they also need to include government workers from the sub-national level. If this doesn’t happen then there is a danger that the work will be rejected.

We thank all the policy makers who shared their time and knowledge with us and look forward to many more fruitful collaborations in the future.