Mission Impossible? Creating a Dialogue between Research, Policy and Practice Communities

22 October 2019, 1437 EDT

A guest post by Julia Palik, Peace Research Institute Oslo; Govinda Clayton, Center for Security Studies, ETH Zurich; Simon J. A. Mason, Head of Mediation Support Team, Center for Security Studies, ETH Zurich; and Siri Aas Rustad, Peace Research Institute Oslo

On the surface, it should be easy. Practitioners and policy makers always require better knowledge to make informed decisions, and academics (nearly) always seek that their research makes an impact in the “real” world.  Yet this rarely works out. In most cases academic-practice-policy dialogues, forums, meetings and conferences rarely produce the envisaged coming together of minds, cross-fertilization of ideas or collaborative spirit. So, when we recently decided to organize an academic-practice meeting to launch our new ceasefire research project, we knew that we had to do things a bit differently. Our approach produced some big wins, participants engaged in a meaningful, open and engaging fashion, we all learnt a lot about ceasefires from different perspectives, and feedback showed that most people got value out of the meeting. But we also faced familiar problems. We therefore thought it would be great to share a few of our biggest “learnings”.

Eight Things We Learnt  

  1. Narrow and specific topics are better suited for cross community engagement. Our meeting focused on ceasefires, a very specific topic, rather than conflict management or peacemaking more generally. This gave the meeting a very clear focus that helped to keep everybody on a similar wavelength, even when approaching the topic from different angles or using different methods. The diversity of approaches appeared between the researcher, practitioner and policy communities, but also within these communities. Some academics, for example, were interested in abstract, generalizable patterns of how ceasefires affect conflicts and peace processes, looking at large-n data. Other academics zoomed in on one case, trying to develop or test theories. Ceasefire mediation practitioners were often also interested in single cases, but were concerned with theory only to the degree it would help them design practical processes to help parties negotiate a ceasefire agreement. Still other practitioners, involved in implementing ceasefires, were less worried about the actual agreement, and more about the concrete challenges of putting them into practice in a fragile or even hostile environment. Thus enormous diversity of interests and approach, but all around the topic of ceasefires.
  2. Balance aspirational and realistic goals: It is always important to have clear goals to keep everyone pulling in the same direction and remain clear on what you are trying to create. We balanced very aspirational community building goals, based on the principle of generosity (in listening, commenting, collaborating), with more realistic substantive aspirations, focusing mainly on identifying knowledge gaps. It really helped to focus the sessions by being very explicit on both these goals, and framing every session around them. 
  3. Keep a tight guest list, it really matters who you invite: Carefully select a group of specific people who are motivated, excited, and constructively critical. We really cannot stress this enough. The more thorough the participant selection process, the better the conversation will be. We were lucky to have more than 50 people in a room who were not just leaders in their fields, but enthusiastic, supportive and generous individuals. Crucial here is that everyone was self-critical and willing to learn and reflect. This only works if it is a two-way road of learning and exchange.
  4. Context is everything, choose the right location: Recognize that meaningful results need time. Building trust, connections, and joint solutions are unlikely to emerge in a few hours. We were together for 3-days, which gave us time for relationships to form, informal (as well as formal) connections to develop, and people to be curious. We were also in a relatively remote space outside Oslo, which helped create a more communal atmosphere. In addition to the physical context, we also set the rules of engagement in the first session by making collaboration, community and generosity key workshop aims that we constantly revisited. Which was then strengthened and supported by the physical space.
  5. Don’t try to fit square pegs in round holes (i.e. don’t make practitioners try to be academics, and vice versa): Most academics thrive in a conference environment, and are happy listening to a series of presentations. For most other people this is closer to a form of torture than engagement. We created a diverse programme that included conventional academic panels, roundtables, country presentations, and a fireside chat. Mixing researchers with different methodological backgrounds, practitioners and formats helped to keep the audience alert and kept the conversation dynamic. However, we now realize we could have gone even further, feedback revealed that participants would have liked workshops (i.e. what do policy makers expect from academics, how can useful policy recommendation be formulated by whom? etc.), more informal sessions, and simple elements like frequently rearranging the room and having small group work formats to create a different atmosphere and allow for more interaction. Thus next time we will ensure to involve representatives from all communities in the design of the program early on. We also decided to devote an entire session to discuss ways through which researchers, policy-makers, and practitioners can learn from each other. We learnt that research results are often simply too expensive or outdated for practitioners to access and there is a clear need for having summaries of research articles, and to diversify the language of research, i.e. to make results available in Arabic or Spanish.
  6. Your normal presentation definitely won’t work (i.e. invest in pre-conference coaching and clear guidance): Policy-makers, practitioners and researchers generally know very well how to communicate to their own community. But they often struggle to know how to present to other audiences. Academic presentations based around regression tables, abstract concepts and lofty theoretical frameworks won’t work, but the same study presented with clear visuals, a concise message and some clear findings up front, might. For example, one academic presentation that was particularly well received, concluded with explicit questions towards the practitioner community on ceasefire monitoring and verification. Similarly, practitioners often have a wealth of knowledge on a case or process, but might need support identifying which elements are most relevant for this audience, or better suited for a Q&A session in which the audience focuses in on the more relevant aspects. In any case, investing in detailed feedback for all speakers prior to the meeting is likely to increase the likelihood that the presentation is meaningful and mutually beneficial.
  7. You must be open to reevaluating your assumptions: Members of the same community generally share similar assumptions on how to approach a topic. One of the most challenging elements of engaging with another community is that often these seemingly logical assumptions come under challenge. Whilst this can seem disorientating, if participants are open and receptive, it can become one of the most enriching elements of cross community engagement. For example, academics studying ceasefires using cross-national methods all took the signing of a ceasefire as the logical starting point of their analysis. Ceasefire mediators strongly questioned this assumption, highlighting that ceasefires often take months to put into practice, and suggested exploring alternative means of capturing the onset of an agreement.
  8. Keeping the momentum: We never considered our engagement ending when the meeting closed. We were very clear that this was the beginning of a new community. Therefore rather than adopt an academic submarine approach (i.e. pop up when you have a new publication, only to submerge and not been seen until your next paper is published), we build in a series of follow up engagements to lock in and build on the connections made at the meeting. As a first step, we designed a follow up survey, a written summary of the report, and a short tri-yearly summary of any relevant research publications to show dedication and long-term plans for engagement.

Creating connections and collaborations between academics, practitioners, and policy makers is notoriously challenging, but not impossible. When done well can be a truly enriching and rewarding experience for all. It is also essential for building the better world that is at the heart of most academic and practitioners work. It does however require us all doing something a little different. So be open, innovative and creative, and you are more likely to create an event that works well for all.