Relevant for Whom? The Multiplicity of Policy Audiences

Professor Deborah Avant and Professor Christian Davenport discuss an age-old form of discrimination in India termed “untouchability” at the University of Denver, October 7, 2015. By the University of Denver.

By Deborah Avant for Denver Dialogues

The Carnegie Corporation of New York’s “Rigor and Relevance Initiative” invests heavily in improving the transfer of research and expertise between higher education and the policy world in the area of global affairs. But just how beneficial is this?

The benefit depends, in part, on who we think inhabits this policy world. For some (Steve Van Evera, Frank Gavin, Jim Goldgeier, among others—all with generous funding from Carnegie) it is clearly the American elite that occupy the policy space. Engaging with the American policy elite does have important potential benefits—see Bruce Jentleson and Ely Ratner on this. But judging scholarship by its relevance to the values and goals of these few elite alone is of questionable value according to Adam Elkus.

As Cullen Hendrix points out, though, policy relevance is a contested concept. Carnegie appears to recognize this. At the same time that it spent some of its millions on those seeking relevance with the Washington elite (see particularly the Syracuse and Columbia initiatives), Carnegie directed other millions at programs like the Sie Center’s (see also the Tufts initiative) aimed at researching—and engaging with—a much broader policy world that includes civilian activists, business leaders, and non-governmental organizations, amongst others.

And it is not just Carnegie that recognizes the extent of possible policy audiences. At its annual “Strategy for Peace” Conference, the Stanley Foundation hosted a wide array of experts, governmental officials, and activists on Nuclear Security, Mass Atrocity Prevention, and Carbon Pricing. Furthermore, it also hosted its first working group on “Understanding the Future Actors in Transnational Governance,” which focused specifically on this broader policy world.

Mike Horowitz claims that policy relevance can mean several things: significance for policy, accessibility to policymakers, “actionability,” and impact on public debate. What each of these means is quite different, though, depending on whether we are thinking of policy makers as US governmental elite or the multiple stakeholders vital to governance—like those supporting the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, or the communities that, according to Severine Autesserre, are key to stemming violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Research is better informed and more impactful if the researcher engages deeply with the policy world from the inception of her research through its dissemination no matter who is the appropriate policy community. While the International Policy Summer Institute (IPSI) can prepare scholars for engagement and impact on US policy, it is of less use in understanding and disrupting patterns of “untouchability” in India. That, as we learned from our “Engaged Scholar” awardee, Christian Davenport, requires a different toolkit. (Professor Davenport also convenes, with my colleague Erica Chenoweth, a consortium of engaged scholars.) We can certainly draw lessons on how best to engage with companies and NGOs in all their variety from IPSI training, but the further you move from a US audience, the tougher the stretch.

The ethical concerns for researchers are also contingent on the type of policy audience. Here those working with a broader notion of the policy world may have something to teach those focused on the policy elite. As Lee Ann Fujii argues, many worry about ethics in fieldwork settings. Though she warns against thinking of this in simplistic terms—as only a box to be checked—it is clear that those whose research leads them to interact with vulnerable populations think more about research ethics. But surely those focused on (and engaging with) powerful elite should also ask themselves ethical questions—not just about whether they have policy impact but also about what that policy impact leads to (this is worthy of a post of its own—stay tuned).

The Carnegie Corporation, the Stanley Foundation, and others are to be commended for their increasing acknowledgement of just how varied the policy world can be. If we are serious about engaging with policy makers of various sorts, though, we will also need to be serious about developing and reflecting on the array of different tools we need for these varied audiences and settings.

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