Policy-making as discourse: A review of recent research-to-policy literature

Working and discussion papers
September 2009
Harry Jones

This working paper explores the link between knowledge and policy in development: at stake is the question of how our understanding of the problems faced in development, and the ways in which they can be addressed, are translated into action. The problems in this area are real and hugely significant: despite a great deal of knowledge being generated through formal research, it all too rarely feeds into or informs policies of governments or development agencies; the voices of the poor that have the potential to inform policy with a grounded understanding of the problems they face are infrequently drawn upon; knowledge and learning generated in the course of implementing programmes is rarely shared with those who could use it to improve their work; power imbalances in the development discourse mean that policy-making is dominated by organisations or institutions which lack adequate knowledge of the contexts in which they work. Addressing these issues is fundamental to improving the effectiveness of development work, and improving development agencies’ and Southern governments’ abilities to tackle the problems with which they are faced.

It begins by defining what is meant by knowledge and policy, discusses the various approaches to understanding the link between them and outlines three ‘paradigms’ that run through the literature (rational; pluralism and opportunism; and politics and legitimisation). Next, it examines the theoretical work on the role of knowledge in policy, bringing together work from the newest paradigm, focusing on policy processes as discursive power. Part 3 tackles one key area of the more practically-focused literature, about generating knowledge for policy. Part 4 looks at the other side of the practical literature, focusing on the various processes which mediate between the generation of knowledge and its use in the policy process, and how they can be improved. The final section concludes, and summarises the key issues and future avenues for research.