• Opinion
  • February 14, 2019
  • 6 minutes
  • 1

Literature reviews for policy development — what’s the use?

Opinion: A review of the evidence should not be a one-time activity but an iterative process

literature review

This opinion piece was written by Robyn Blackadar, the President and CEO of PolicyWise for Children & Families, a Canadian organisation that supports the generation and use of evidence in policy.

With the best intentions to bring evidence into the policy development cycle, public servants usually want to have a review of the evidence. Most often, they seek scientific evidence that is created through reviews of scientific and “grey” (not scientific) literature.

Yet, these reviews are time-consuming and very costly (in Canada, ranging from C$40,000 to $300,000). No doubt, public servants would want to get the best value for their money so, at the outset, we need to be clear on how the information will be used to inform policy.

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Early in my role as CEO of PolicyWise, I was often asked about what impact we have had on policy aimed at improving the well-being of children and families.

I found it a challenge to identify a clear example of our impact but could point to a lot of high-quality scientific research reports. Since 2003, PolicyWise has supported evidence generation to inform policy and practice decisions for child, family and community well-being. Over this time we have funded hundreds of researchers to conduct reviews.

A few years ago, we worked with a social innovation group to help us develop our theory of change and impact assessment. Through that process we closely examined our approach to generating evidence for use by policy planners and decision makers.

We concluded that while the knowledge base was clearly increasing by the sheer number of research articles and reports produced, we were less sure about how this information was used to inform policy.

If we were to maintain the trust and reliance on our expertise by our public servant colleagues, we had to consider all mechanisms to ensure research review results were useable.

There had to be an undeniable link between the research question and how the information would be used

We found that it worked well to have the reviews led by our evaluation team that has more generalised knowledge and subject matter experts contracted as advisors. There had to be an undeniable link between the research question and how the information would be used. Much more up-front time was spent negotiating the priorities, and developing a common understanding of how the evidence would eventually be applied.

A literature review is just the first step of the process that we call an e-scan. Government clients work closely with us, often participating in the interviews, advising on search terms, helping analyse the results and suggesting people to interview. We often bring in the researchers and thought leaders to meet face-to-face with our public servant clients, so their questions can be addressed directly in conversation.

Our approach builds and sustains trusted relationships, comprehensive understandings of social issues and how evidence can be used to address these issues, collaborative action, knowledge advancement and ultimately meaningful impact and change.

We now have all kinds of examples of how our e-scans have been used. Our Indigenous Youth Scoping Review was used to inform Alberta’s Indigenous youth suicide prevention plan, and the literature review on Trauma, Grief and Loss was used to create training materials for caregivers and social workers.

We conducted an internal international review on policies and programs supporting persons with development disabilities, and it is currently informing the evolution of an improved provincial disabilities benefits program.

Our e-scan on integrated youth services hubs has been instrumental for creating a provincial implementation and evaluation framework for community-based hubs for early intervention of mental health concerns for youth.

A review of the evidence should not be a one-time activity, but should be an iterative, embedded process

Whether you have in-house expertise to conduct your own reviews, or you contract them out to researchers, you can minimise the risk of wasting time and money if you take more control of the process, with the end-use clearly in view.  Your involvement in the review at all stages will guarantee that new knowledge becomes part of your understanding and, therefore, will be top-of-mind as you develop policy options.

A review of the evidence should not be a one-time activity, but should be an iterative, embedded process that guides both the development and implementation of an effective policy solution. — Robyn Blackadar

(Picture credit; Unsplash)


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