Partnered Engagement: A New Form of Ethical Policy Engagement

18 April 2022, 1547 EDT

What happens when a research subject becomes a research and briefing partner? In 2017, I was contacted by the peacebuilding NGO Peace Direct to contribute to a policy report on community-based atrocities prevention. I invited a local peacebuilder I knew from Colombia to partner with me in the endeavor. We co-facilitated an online forum and drafted a chapter for the report. We then shared our findings – plus her experiences and my research – with NGOs and policymakers in the U.S.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, once I got involved with the Sié Center’s Responsible Engagement program at the University of Denver and reflected on the experience, I came to refer to what we did as “partnered engagement.”

This form of policy engagement entails collaboration between academics, local partners, and NGOs in the dissemination of research findings and policy implications. This approach differs from traditional research-sharing processes, where local partners may contribute raw information for academic analyses but are left out of the policy engagement process—and thus whose views are filtered through the interpretations of the  researchers. By contrast, the partnered approach directly includes these voices and perspectives. Because it involves collaboration and strategizing among partners, it does not result in separate, uncoordinated side-by-side remarks.

This approach has several practical advantages. It can provide more accurate and influential information to policymakers because it is less of a game of “telephone” – in which key insights may be lost in translation when related by academic researchers. The local partner’s presence amounts to a costly form of engagement that may attract greater policymaker attention, as the partner can convey more stories, specific examples, and nuances based on their experiences. For their part, the partners have greater control over how their views, insights, and lived experiences are communicated to policy audiences.

Our Partnered Process

My “partner” in the engagement was Cristina Serna, then-president of the Peasant Workers Association of the Carare River of Colombia – or the “ATCC” by its initials in Spanish. The ATCC was founded in 1987 in response to multiple threats by guerrilla (FARC and ELN), paramilitary, and state actors. It is one of Colombia’s earliest local peace organizations.

Cristina Serna (ATCC) and Oliver Kaplan (University of Denver) attending “partnered” meetings at the U.S. Institute of Peace (2018). Photo: Oliver Kaplan.

Because I had visited Cristina’s community years earlier to study their mediation processes, our new collaboration as co-authors was built on a solid foundation. Through Peace Direct’s 24-hour online “consultation” we gathered the perspectives of 90 peacebuilders, academics, and professionals from around the world.

Forum participants reaffirmed the existence and value of both formal and informal local peace organizations. They praised community self-protection practices – such as early warning, local mediation, and reconciliation – and the skill displayed by local leaders (as Cristina remarked, “Communities must be vigilant and alert to new people and new commanders among armed actors”). 

Cristina then joined me in Washington, D.C., where we met for dinners and other meetings with U.S., U.N., and NGO policymakers sponsored by the Stanley Center for Peace and Security.

The Pros… and Cons of Partnering

As I would come to find, partnered policy engagement provides various benefits to those involved. Civil society actors acquire new experiences and opportunities to develop their networks. NGOs experience success as advocates and brokers. Policymakers benefit from access to distinctive (and often more legitimate) perspectives and the lessons that those perspectives bring with them. Academics gain a broader audience for their research and findings.

The greater inclusiveness of the approach helps to sustain productive, cooperative research relationships. It represents a welcome departure from relationships that are built around the extraction of information.

Yet there are also potential costs, risks, and challenges, especially for the civil society actors. The most obvious is that it can divert them from their daily activities and responsibilities. In our experience, one unforeseen challenge stemmed from Cristina’s position as the leader of her community.

Because of her responsibilities, Cristina had to conciliate threats against residents of her community during the very days of the online consultation and was monitoring conditions back home while giving briefings in Washington, D.C.! (The threats were likely from neo-paramilitary criminal bands—so-called BACRIM—that emerged in Colombia after the demobilization of the AUC paramilitaries in the mid-2000s). This limited her availability and attention, but protecting her community did seem slightly more urgent than academic analysis and forum moderation. She also had to incur the costs of time and effort to travel far from her home for the engagement activities. These costs and risks should be analyzed and accounted for when making requests on our partners so they are fairly compensated for their time and energy.

Positionality and Policy Engagement

Partnered engagement acquires its persuasive power precisely from the different positions held by the different participants. It therefore encourages greater reflection on positionality—recognizing one’s social position—than might normally occur during policy engagements. Civil society actors bring influence because of their direct experiences, while academics can contribute research-based evidence and assist with interpreting, emphasizing, and explaining key insights brought by the engagement partners. However, there can be different benefits and vulnerabilities for each participant. Positionalities should therefore be explicitly identified and managed before they are possibly leveraged for ethical policy impact.

I could not ignore the differing incentives and power imbalances between Cristina and myself, especially in a setting like Washington, D.C. She is an Afro-Colombian woman with leadership skills from a small rural community, but she had language limitations and was on her first international trip. I am a White man and was in a familiar country, city, setting, and language and had the benefit of the (modest) prestige and access from holding a Ph.D. (plus a modicum of credibility from past field experience). Yet Cristina’s unique real-life experience plus my academic position proved a powerful combination to communicate policy implications in a structured, heartfelt, and ground-truthed way.

Managing positionality begins with explicitly recognizing and assessing positions and what they imply for how partners might uniquely interact with policymakers. This entails articulating what characteristics, access, advantages, and limitations each individual has. These can vary based on each person’s professional and life experiences, or even relative to one type of policy audience versus another. 

The Future of Partnered Engagement

Partnered policy engagement applies to a broader set of engagement scenarios beyond peacebuilding. One example is the possibility of conducting joint presentations of research findings by academics and bureaucrats (or academics and activists) to higher-level policymakers. In their book, Eli Berman and co-authors report instances of academics partnering with subordinate military officials to brief research findings to higher-ranking commanders. One nimble option for additional partnered engagement in the post-Coronavirus reality is using online forums—like Peace Direct’s—since they can bring new voices to the conversation without the risks and costs of travel, including ones that may not speak in the lingua franca.

Future analyses of the partnered engagement modality could compare its impact relative to traditional engagement formats (e.g., briefings by scholars alone). They could check whether the engagements go beyond simply educating policymakers to directly contribute to shifts in decisions or policies, either immediately or down the road. Although partnered engagement is not without risks, with sufficient planning, reflexivity, and support the risks can be managed to produce valuable experiences for all.

This post is part of an occasional series discussing the ethical dilemmas engendered when academics engage with policymakers and the broader public. It is affiliated with the  Rigor, Relevance, and Responsibility project of the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security & Diplomacy, which seeks to make ethical considerations an integral part of policy-relevant research and engagement. The program develops knowledge around, and informs the practice of, responsible engagement so that future generations of academics can engage in the policy world with confidence and clarity. The project receives support from the  Carnegie Corporation of New York.