In advocacy, which matters more – evidence or relationships? How has Covid changed the balance?

Sometimes I wish the earth was flat – then at least, we wouldn’t have time zones. Last week I blearily zoomed in for three 7am starts to discuss the strategy of the Myanmar-based Centre for Good Governance (full disclosure, I’m an adviser). Luckily, it was really interesting.

CGG prides itself on its ability to adapt to a shifting context, which is just as well, given Myanmar’s turbulent politics + Covid. It combines some brilliant Myanmar staff with some thoughtful expats, funded by what is now routinely called ‘DFID-erm-FCDO’.

One lightbulb moment was when one of the staff involved in lobbying with politicians gently pointed out that evidence actually isn’t that important in shaping their decisions (tough message, in a project explicitly aiming to get more and better evidence into policy). What mattered, he said, is relationships – connections, trust etc. CGG needs ‘to shift from producing evidence to creating influence’.

Which changes a lot, in a programme aiming to influence the state. For example:

nodes not nerds
  • Rethinking programmes: if you want to generate evidence, you run a well-documented pilot, publish the results and then wait for an evidence-hungry state to scale it up. If you are all about relationships, it matters much more how many decision makers visit the project, or feel involved in it (on steering groups etc).
  • Rethinking hiring: you need staff that either have existing relationships or are natural networkers – nodes not nerds. Ex officials or politicians are good, or else you can emulate Coalitions for Change in the Philippines and hire a bunch of senior/retired university professors, who can march into the office of former students and ask them to do stuff, even when they are now government ministers.
  • Rethinking Comms: CGG staffers are pretty sceptical than any Myanmar politician is going to read more than a page (pretty much like British ones in fact). What works best is ‘some visuals, plus talking – 5 minutes max’. Elevator pitches and well-honed narratives, plus one slide.
  • Rethinking Media: ‘In Myanmar, the government works through Facebook – if they got hot there, they feel they have to respond’.
  • Added volatility: politicians and civil servants come and go. One of the great frustrations of lobbyists is seeing the investment in a given contact squandered when they move on/get sacked/retire. It may be worth thinking about cultivating broad, shallow relationships with large numbers of potential decision makers, in addition to going in strong on the ones currently in power.

OK, I’m over-stating the case (as usual). You need both. Evidence can provide the conversation starter – the institutional and individual ‘points of entry’, something that CGG endlessly discusses and updates. Evidence gives you the confidence that what you are proposing might actually work. Even if officials don’t read it, you’ll have more credibility if you have skin in the game – something on the ground, written up.

And of course, there’s a huge difference between evidence that is supply-driven (‘here’s what we outsiders think you should be doing and why’) and demand-driven (you have asked us for some help with stuff you want to do – here you are).

So it’s both/and, but the balance has to shift. Especially because of Covid.

Firstly, it’s really hard to build new relationships in a lockdown or a crisis. Fewer chance encounters, or schmoozing targets at conferences (a Zoom break-out room really isn’t as good). Anyway, in a crisis like Covid, decision makers naturally turn to people they already know and trust. So you should probably be placing even more emphasis on your existing networks, trying to cultivate people you’ve already met, rather than starting from scratch.

One way to do that is by making yourself useful in a crisis, as CGG did when it produced a super-quick public safety announcement on Covid that a grateful government rapidly adopted. Full story here.

Alternatively, go through ‘trust intermediaries’. Who do you know who is trusted by the minister or the permanent secretary? Back to the university profs, I guess.

One final point, if you focus on relationships, you should think more about the long term. People often form enduring relationships when they are young, before they come to positions of power. Then they rely on those friendships because once you are the minister, everyone lies to you or at least tries to lobby you (you’ve seen Yes Minister, right? If not, why not?). That suggests that an organization like CGG should be thinking about where to form relationships with future decision makers (whether officials or politicians) – places like relevant university departments, or staff training colleges.


And talking of Yes Minister, here’s Sir Humphrey hearing a timeless account of university attitudes to foreign students. As someone said in comments, the only thing that is dated is the £4,000 …..

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8 Responses to “In advocacy, which matters more – evidence or relationships? How has Covid changed the balance?”
  1. Michael O'Donnell

    There is an irony in the sequencing of this after our blog sharing evidence in yesterday’s FP2P! But in agreeing with the “not ‘either/ or’ but both” conclusion, I do think evidence-generation folks always need to be thinking about and preferably working hand-in-hand with those more directly involved in the relationship side of advocacy. Michael Quinn Patton’s work on utilisation-focused evaluation (google his checklist on this) has wider applicability to different types of evidence and is a great resource on that.

  2. Thomas Dunmore Rodriguez

    On many issues that we care about, there’s already a huge body of evidence to support our positions. Whether we are using it effectively, even aware it exists, or whether it matters whether it has our logo on it, is another matter. I’ve recently been involved in a bit of advocacy here in Mexico around getting new cycling infrastructure built. It’s amazing how much more cycling up steep hills together with some of the decision-makers at the weekend counts, compared to pages and pages which show why it makes sense to invest in bike lanes.

  3. Masood Ul Mulk

    At the end of a four year donor funded project the government were to produce a hotriculture policy to get funding for the next phase. In the final meeting of the mission to monitor the project, the government was reminded of the condition on which no work had been started. The prompt reply was it could be done next morning! It really depend on how government sees a policy

  4. Anna Gibert

    What a great blog – so much good and true stuff! I am working in a similar donor-funded state influencing initiative in Vanuatu – very different context yet these points could not be more relevant – thank you for writing this.

  5. Charlotte Sterrett

    We are obsessed with providing more and more evidence and fail to prosecute the evidence we already have. I am thinking about climate change in particular here. Advocacy and influencing are key and we need to refine these skills more than ever. Thanks,

  6. Evidence is nothing without the relationships to influence. But is it really about ‘our’ influential relationships (as in western experts/the OXFAMs of the world)? I think is is more about peoples’ relationships with ‘power’. Do we need to have ‘our’ programmes that Myanmar influencers get involved with? Do we need to ‘hire’ the influencers? Sorry, but we need to rethink how to support these individuals, politicians, movements in their quest to become more influential. (Not that we are very successful at it at home these days…)

  7. Researcher

    There is a ‘third way’ which is the cultivation of relationships which enable a constructive use of evidence. Part of this is for the evidence ‘producers’ to have a better understanding of the needs, concerns and approaches to evidence of the consumers, and to make space in which evidence can be discussed without fear of embarrassment. Too much so called ‘evidence’ is either too methodologically dense to be of real use, or is eloquently answering questions which nobody is asking. The best scenario is one where the evidence ‘producers’ work in concert with the evidence ‘consumers’ to identify specific questions and needs, and then work together to collect, analyze and utilize the evidence. In a nutshell: MM government will tend only to fully utilize and internalize data which it has collected and analyzed itself.

  8. Pablo Andrés Rivero

    Thanks, Duncan.
    Good question indeed. Commenting from the LAC region, I think there is a direct relationship between access to quality education, relationships and capacity to influence. Public education is in most cases way lower in quality, technology and transferring “competitive” skills than private ones, yet 90% of kids attend public schools (of course mainly poor or emerging middle-class). Ultimately, the chances of breaking this “crystal roof” are limited to personal effort and not just/more equal conditions.

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