Source: Africa Evidence Network (AEN)

Given that national policies and regulations often have a direct impact on their lives, it is not surprising that many citizens wish to have their voices heard in public policy processes. At the same time, many citizens are now questioning the credibility and legitimacy of the expert knowledge that is frequently used in public policy and decision-making processes. During an era where we see rising tides of elitism and populism, citizen knowledge – which can be both collective (for example social audits and citizen dialogues) and individual (for example local, cultural and individual knowledge gained through direct experience) - can make a crucial contribution to evidence-informed policy-making.

[Editor’s note: Peter Taylor is Director of Strategy Development at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), and former Associate Director for the Think Tank Initiative, based in Ottawa, Canada.]

A number of conversations have been taking place on this issue (see related blog by Emily Hayter and Peter Taylor) in spaces where researchers and practitioners are sharing their experiences related to citizen evidence, and how this connects to evidence informed policy making. One recent conversation took place via a specially organized satellite session on “Citizen Evidence and Evidence-informed Policy-Making: Whose Knowledge Counts?” at the “Evidence 2018” conference  in Pretoria.

Organized jointly by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC),the Think Tank Initiative, and the African Institute for Development Policy (AFIDEP), the session involved participation of around 50 individuals from across East and West Africa Presenters from ACODE, African Voices Foundation, CPED, CSEA, ESRF, GRAAD, IPAR and REPOA shared their practical experiences supporting the use of citizen evidence. We discussed methods and approaches to support the role of citizen evidence, opportunities and challenges that arise in doing so, and ways of understanding and acting on power relations which may affect both the practice and outcomes of engaging citizens in evidence informed policy/decision making processes.

Through the discussions, participants highlighted how important citizen evidence is in the African context.  Although there are many challenges related to supporting the role of citizens in evidence informed policy/decision making, the gradual spread of democracy and democratic processes throughout Africa is creating greater demand for credible, rigorous evidence. Positive globalising trends are encouraging citizens in different countries and regions to connect with and learn from each other. A range of supporters and intermediaries (including civil society organizations and think tanks) are also helping facilitate the generation and use of citizen evidence, supported in turn by improvements in data availability and access and the technologies that support this. There is still considerable work to do however, in helping those engaged in this work to connect with, and learn from, each other. Participants acknowledged that they have observed the value of citizen evidence in multiple ways - as a manifestation of justice and inclusion, as well as leading to outcomes that improve the lives and well-being of citizens. They also acknowledged, however the need to make and communicate a more coherent and compelling “evidence-based case” for citizen evidence in order to demonstrate that value to a wider audience, and to connect to related debates and practices around citizenship, participation and democratization.

Five main dimensions emerged through the discussions, the key points on which are summarised briefly below. As will be clear, a lot of questions and insights were generated many of which will merit further exploration:

1.       Relationships as a foundation for generation and use of citizen evidence

  • Trust is a crucial basis for citizen engagement and participation around evidence informed decision making
  • Being clear about, and managing expectations on, which kinds of participation (rungs on the “ladder of participation”) are most appropriate at different stages of policy processes
  • Priority setting and decision-making processes need to be well understood and communicated
  • Engaging with different actors who we may not typically see as constituents in our evidence informed policy “landscape” (e.g. the private sector)

 2.       Mechanisms to promote generation and use of citizen evidence

  • Technology (e.g. apps, mobile websites, online videos, etc.) offers huge opportunities for outreach and mass communication
  • Platforms (e.g. community radio, podcasts, social media) provide means to bring together different groups of citizens that sometimes are very disparate, and when chosen well can facilitate different types of data gathering and use
  • Participatory processes and methodologies support the role of citizen evidence – a wealth of these already exist, how can we ensure we learn and continue to learn about what works well?
  • Mechanisms to transfer popular information to government, and back to citizenry – often lacking, need to be strengthened (or even put in place!)
  • Context matters – it’s rare that mechanisms that work in one location can simply be copied or used in the same way elsewhere – adaptation, testing, reflection and learning are all important

 3.       Voice and representation of citizens in policy and decision-making processes

  • Who drives/owns the process/creates demand? Who owns processes for which citizen evidence is seen as of value? Who are the drivers (policy makers, intermediaries, citizens?), and how can their respective roles in engaging with citizen evidence be strengthened and supported?
  • Although high value is attached to the idea of citizens being centrally and meaningfully involved in evidence generation or in policy processes, this is often difficult to achieve in practice. Voice and representation may only be achieved with the right kinds of support in place, particularly through participatory and inclusive approaches that help promote citizen empowerment and agency.
  • How to deal with difference and diversity (culture, language, accessibility, marginalisation….)? “Consultations” are often not inclusive, and may even involve “experts” talking to each other claiming to represent other groups whose participation has not been facilitated.

 4.       The importance of power to citizen evidence

  • Power is constantly shifting and fluid. It’s often perceived that it’s an exhaustible commodity – in fact power can be given by those who have more, to those who have relatively less, and where everyone can gain – it’s not a zero-sum game
  • Real change in power relations is difficult – it’s easy to fall back on rhetoric, but real change can be seen as threatening to some actors. Important to institutionalise and systematise approaches that promote the role of citizen evidence, otherwise the processes will be difficult to sustain
  • Empowerment and agency are crucial elements of citizen evidence – can’t be avoided, and need more nuanced exploration, as well as value in sharing stories and experiences of things that have worked, and that haven’t
  • Drawing on/harnessing the power dynamics between citizens, political leaders, and executive leaders could provide opportunity to strengthen the role of citizen evidence in policy decisions
  • Timing is often critical – engaging at the right moment in a process (e.g. planning periods) can help citizens move an agenda forward with key actors.
  • Evidence may be used in ways that actually discredit citizens, or may generate negative change processes that promote narrow interest groups’ agendas.

 5.       Growing and sustaining the role and contribution of citizen evidence

  • How to go beyond pilots and tests of approaches that support the role of citizen evidence but which cannot be sustained due to lack of funding, time, energy, belief….
  • We need to proactively share more examples, lessons, and insights from our various efforts to grow this work. It could become better connected to existing theories, debates and practices around political participation, citizenship and democratization. It may also help grow an emerging  field on evidence informed policy/decision making. In these ways it can  contribute to addressing some of the most challenging issues of social justice, equity and citizen empowerment.

Taking forward an emerging agenda

Participants interested in growing this collective effort are committed to remaining in touch, not least to continue discussing these many critical issues. Discussions will continue to take place on how to engage others from a much wider set of stakeholders and actors who can contribute, share and learn with this emerging community of practice.