How to build and maintain trust at the interface of policy and research (and some challenges for NGOs)

A brilliant recent piece on the LSE Impact blog about the importance and nature of trust in ensuring that research influences policy makers got me thinking about the implications for advocacy organizations. First a slightly truncated version of the piece, then my musings.

This from the LSE Impact authors:

‘Trust is often invoked as a key ingredient to establishing effective relationships between researchers, their research, and policymakers. Drawing on their study into ICES (the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas), Christopher Cvitanovic and Rebecca Shellock outline lessons and processes in building and maintaining trust informed by the organisation’s extensive experience of connecting research to policy.

Trust underpins successful knowledge exchange among scientists and decision-makers, and thus, the attainment of research impact. However, while the importance of trust is often talked about, specific approaches to building, managing and maintaining trust at the interface of science and policy are lacking.

To address this gap, as part of a new study, we turned to the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES). Founded in 1902, ICES is arguably the world’s oldest boundary organisation, focused on improving knowledge exchange among marine science and policy to support evidence-informed decision-making processes, as such it has a deep institutional knowledge of engaging with policy internationally. For the purpose of our research we focused specifically on ICES members who are directly involved in the translation of ICES science into advice. This included (i) employees of the ICES secretariat (i.e. those employed by ICES who are responsible for overseeing ICES processes) and (ii) annually active members of the ICES community (i.e. key members of ICES working groups to develop advice).  Here, we share our key findings, and provide practical and implementable strategies that can be used by scientists and/or research institutions to help them foster trust.

Trust – criticaldynamic, fragile

All participants of our study considered trust as critically important for successful knowledge exchange.  This was highlighted by one participant who stated that trust is: ‘…the alpha and the omega.  It’s everything.  Without trust, you don’t have anything’.

However, to talk about trust in the abstract can be unhelpful, trust in practice requires actors and context. We identified three levels at which trust is important:

  1. Trust between individuals (e.g. an individual researcher and an individual policy-maker), which was considered to be critical for providing space for open, interactive and honest dialogue.
  2. Trust in the organisation, which was focused on organisational legitimacy and credibility, and acting in a way that is free of bias.
  3. Trust in the process of generating and exchanging knowledge.

While discussing the importance of trust at the interface of science and policy, participants in our research also noted the highly fragile and dynamic nature of trust. Establishing trust is an ongoing process, rather than a singular achievement. As stated by one research participant: ‘[We] might be in a trusted position now, but don’t forget, one huge mistake and you can lose it, or one small mistake that grows into a bigger mistake, and you will lose it’ .  While participants discussed the considerable time needed to build trust, they also noted the much quicker speed in which it can be lost or eroded – as little as a number of days.

Strategies for building trust

In total our study identified 14 specific strategies and considerations for building trust (Fig.1).  Of these the most frequently discussed was the need for transparency across all processes related to knowledge production and exchange. This was highlighted by one participant who said that: ‘Transparency is hugely important, and it will become more and more so. In this time of populist politicians and fake news, if you cannot demonstrate transparency throughout all parts of the process you will be considered untrustworthy….and it’s not just about perceived transparency, but actual transparency’. Specific approaches for ensuring transparency included, among others, having an inclusive and participatory processes that includes diverse stakeholders, and clearly acknowledging and articulating the limitations of knowledge generating processes.


Figure 1: Fourteen strategies identified through a case study of ICES for building trust at the interface of environmental science and policy, as published in Cvitanovic et al (2021).

Not advocating for a specific outcome was the next most frequently identified consideration when trying to build trust at the interface of science and policy.  This was highlighted by one participant who said: ‘Our job is not to say what they should do, but to present them with an unbiased summary form the evidence base, explain the potential consequences of any actions they may take based on that evidence, and then let them deal with it as they want’.

Repairing damaged trust

As highlighted above, while our study showed that trust is critical for effective knowledge exchange at the interface of science and policy to support research impact, it is also dynamic and fragile. Reflecting on their involvement in ICES, and particularly situations where trust with decision-makers had been compromised in the past, participants of our study identified five key steps to trust repair, and specific considerations for each step, as summarised in Fig.2.’

Figure 2: The five stages of trust repair, and accompanying actions, identified through this study of ICES, as published in Cvitanovic et al (2021).

Implications for Advocacy Organizations

And a few thoughts from me: I think this piece raises real challenges for advocacy organizations. Looking at the 14 trust-building strategies, I would highlight (at least) three where they can struggle:

  1. ‘Do not advocate for a specific outcome’. Some advocacy research just highlights a problem (‘inequality is rising’) but most proposes a specific solution. At the extreme, it can verge on ‘policy-based evidence-making’, where an organization starts with its campaign aim, then assembles evidence to justify it.
  2. ‘Be able to demonstrate independence’. Ditto
  3. ‘Allow time for trust to form’. Many advocacy organizations operate at a much more frenetic pace than research institutions. While a researcher often builds their career through painstaking research on a particular topic stretching over decades, advocates often hop from subject to subject in response to need and public interest, reducing their ability to build ‘slow trust’.

Which got me thinking that if trust is indeed the ‘alpha and omega’ of policy influencing, NGOs and other advocacy organizations might have more impact if they accept the limitations that their identity creates, and work in partnership with ‘pure’ academic institutions rather than going it alone. Thoughts?

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5 Responses to “How to build and maintain trust at the interface of policy and research (and some challenges for NGOs)”
  1. Duncan Green

    Here are some paras from frustrated commenters/twitter:
    Shruti Patel: ‘On your conclusion Duncan, why should partnering with an academic institution automatically confer neutrality and trust? Isn’t it naive to think researchers don’t come with their own agendas & biases? An entire world of RCTs has been populated by NGO-research p/ships – work that’s very publishable. I’m all for collab. but if NGOs use academic p/ships solely to build trust, they may end up undermining their own cause & credibility. Let’s not conflate academic rigour and trust.’
    From Annie Feighery: ‘NGOs and more broadly, philanthropically derived aid are only 6% of all ODA. Why focus on them so much? Most of the application of research becoming policy happens with the governments we serve to help directly as a process with multilateral agencies.’
    From David Waller: ‘This is a great summary of the importance of trust but despite “strategy 11 Listen to Stakeholders and accept feedback” it still seems to be based on NGOs and academics using research as the basis for advocacy to influence policy makers to change policy. Perhaps we should first ask why we want to use advocacy to change policy? Leaving aside “Strategy 12 – Communicate Organisational Success” which too often seems to be the main motivation for campaigns branded with the logo of particular organisations, we are surely not doing this for the sake of having good policy but rather in order to improve the behaviours and practices of both commercial and public service providers and the service users. The current debate around vaccine supply and take up is a case in point as we need better supply and delivery of vaccines alongside citizens coming forward to be vaccinated.

    Listening to and respecting the insights of both the service providers and service users has been shown to lead to real change in which these groups that you are wanting to influence become not the subject of your advocacy but rather the creators and leaders of the changes in policies and practices that you are seeking. “Advocacy” is too often akin to arm twisting and imposing change from the outside instead of supporting public and private service providers to provide the leadership for change that some of them would dearly love to provide but too often can’t due to limited resources and other organisational constraints. Similarly our external research too often treats the citizen we are trying to help as a passive “beneficiary” rather than as an active agent of change without whom nothing will be sustainable such as when we try to impose vaccination on people who have concerns about it.

    Perhaps there would be more trust if outside agencies stopped branded advocacy campaigns completely until they have demonstrated they have really listened to and supported those local stakeholders who have the potential to champion and lead the change themselves. Advocacy can come if that doesn’t work but too often it is done first and in a way that disempowers and undermines potential local activism and leadership.’

  2. Very interesting article, particularly because it touches that difficult challenge for NGOs that do or fund research: impartiality and/or neutrality while advocating. In developing countries building trust (long-term) is even more difficult given that clientelistic relationships and nepotism make it hard to find policy-makers willing (and capable) to listen. Also, most policy-makers don’t stay in one place for long (in my experience, this is rare); the ones that do often lack power or influence.

    In the anti-corruption NGO I lead, we talk about “constructive conflict”. This means pushing and openly criticizing specific government agencies while simultaneously offering as much help as possible. Building trust happens when people in the government agency realise our work is not “politically-motivated”; that while we have clear evidence-based goals and will not shy away from pushing for them, we will also contribute. I believe this is not usual. In general, NGOs to whom government agencies open their doors have to compromise their tone and intensity of constructive criticism.

    It was no easy or quick task. It took a decade and things truly began to move in that direction only in the last 3 years when we started directly contributing and collaborating on high-stakes projects and reforms with leading policy-makers at the Ministry of Education and National Procurement Directorate in Paraguay (and it’s not through USAID, World Bank or other high-level donors that have the power to influence/force government and CSOs to collaborate). However, achieving that level of trust did not prevent us from very publicly exposing what’s being done wrong and the people responsible for it. Trust was built WHILE we were advocating for specific reforms based on the research and evidence we’ve gathered.

    I believe many CSO leaders don’t have “building trust” as a goal when they engage with government agencies. The system of incentives generated by the way huge donors and their grants operate skew them in that direction. But it’s also about a culture of sorts in the way CSOs are set or operate–if I may–that approaches the logics of a private sector firm or industry more than the building of community (broadly speaking) and capabilities to solve X social problem in the long-term. NGOs that are set up for the latter are much more likely, I would assume, to see the value of building trust with policy-makers because their work is thought long-term from the very beginning.

  3. Al Richardson

    Thanks for this post. I am unclear why we say we shouldn’t advocate for an outcome. I think being more outcome focused (e.g. the example given around reducing inequality) is a very good way to bring change – for example engaging the relevant ministry around discussions of inequality and they agree that it would be great if we could find solutions to help reduce inequality. And then you can present evidence of an approach which can help towards this outcome. This way your evidence is meeting something that they have already identified as a need or aim. By being outcome rather than intervention focused, then this allows for more trust, collaboration and listening as the article encourages. It can also help us be more open to either extra or alternative interventions (suggested by other players) to help address this agreed outcome, rather than thinking that our intervention is the only / best thing.

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