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Political Obstacles To Knowledge Mobilization

At a recent Ontario KTE (Knowledge Transfer & Exchange) Community of Practice (CoP) presentation, I had the opportunity to join a discussion with former Ontario Deputy Minister of Education, Ben Levin and Janet Mason, Assistant Deputy Minister of Planning & Research with the Ontario Provincial Government’s Cabinet Office. (Ben Levin is currently Professor and Canada Research Chair in Education Leadership and Policy at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education).

The topic of conversation was Research to Policy – how researchers inform government policy and how government policy informs research.

Ben Levin began by talking about his experience in the world of politicians. He jokingly says he was “coerced” to serve as Deputy Minister – first in Manitoba, then in Ontario – due to his extensive experience as an educator. Link to a previous presentation that Ben made at a KMb Seminar while in government here.

Levin suggests that the biggest obstacle to research becoming policy is the government system itself. Due to the very nature of the Canadian, partisan political system, a mindset exists that already inhibits any politician’s desire to make their opponents’ research interests their own. Levin says when promises are already made by politicians, it’s difficult to listen to research. A further point Levin made is that the time constraints of four-year political terms means politicians only pick a few issues during office – limiting the research that is actually selected for policy.

Levin also says a final obstacle is the electorate – the voters themselves – who may not necessarily be interested in the same research to policy agenda that the politicians are. Levin asserts that these three factors are the main obstacles to overcome to achieve policy results from research.

Janet Mason agreed with Levin and pointed out that the government process overly focuses on stakeholders and is one of the main barriers to knowledge mobilization in achieving research to policy. Mason suggests a need to get conversations in a “safe place” that isn’t politicized – which includes public consultations. When I asked her for clarification on where such a “safe place” might be, she was unable to answer directly, but suggested that the partisan nature of limiting research to policy needs to be momentarily put aside for the more significant issues that effect the general public (like education tuition and the environment) to become a priority.

Mason stressed the importance of public consultations in the political process while acknowledging the current political barriers that exist. The bottom line: if you can’t mobilize voters, you can’t mobilize knowledge.

Both Levin and Mason agree there is a political or policy window of opportunity in getting research to policy, with Levin quoting from John Kingdon’s  book Angendas and Public Policies for further information.

They provided a further lesson about the delicate political balance that politicans face in not being too far ahead of the electorate.

Although it may seem a rather gloomy prospect for any researcher to get their findings into policy based on such political barriers, Levin encourages researchers to continue with the process of research through knowledge mobilization for the value of evidence-based research itself with the hope that some of that research might make it over the hurdles of the political obstacles that continue to exist.