Once a K* practitioner, always a K* practitioner

By Louise Shaxson, Research Fellow, RAPID, Overseas Development Institute, London, UK

Like Alex, I’m greatly looking forward to the K* conference – the first global, cross-sectoral conference on knowledge translation/brokering/exchange/mobilisation – or, in Alex’s very neat shorthand, K*.  Any policymaking process means making decisions, and decisions need knowledge.  Whether we work with government, as practitioners or in the private sector; we need to be sure that we are correctly interpreting the evidence in front of us.  And the more complex the decisions, the more knowledge is power.  I’ll come back to this later: but to begin with, Alex gave a bit of his personal history on his experience navigating the knowledge-policy interface in an earlier blog, so I thought I’d write mine.

In 2003 I began working with a UK government department (Defra: the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), helping them understand this new term evidence-based policymaking and work out how to make it happen in practice.  I found understanding how to improve the supply of robust evidence for policy was relatively easy, but understanding what made policymakers demand more and better evidence was another thing entirely.

And then I came across the term knowledge brokering: it seemed to describe exactly what it was that I and the rest of the team I worked with were trying to do – act as a neutral broker between the suppliers of knowledge (researchers, the private sector, citizens and other stakeholders) and those needing it (policymakers).    But the more we did it the more we realised that it was incredibly hard to retain that neutrality.  Being a knowledge broker was, it turned out, an inherently political position.

Because of these challenges I found myself often having to go back to first principles to explain why changes were necessary: developing simple models of the interface between knowledge and policy helped people develop a shared understanding of the issues in front of them.  I confess to liking models and frameworks; they’re never 100% right, but they do help clarify things so that you can work out where to go next.

So here’s the first model I worked with:

Early framework for knowledge brokering in a government department

So, what should a knowledge broker look like: a person, a team, a department?  Should they sit inside government or outside?  What exactly should they do?  Part way through my work with Defra I came across Alex and his work at Environment Canada: similar departmental functions, similar issues with improving the use of science in policy, and a shared set of experiences.  It became clear that we were independently working along very similar lines and over the past six years he, I and many others have talked a great deal about this world of knowledge translation/transfer/ brokering/mobilisation/exchange; what it does and doesn’t mean and whether we should get hung up about terminology or not.  I tend towards not being hung up about it, but do think it’s useful to go back to first principles and think about what it is we’re aiming for before working out what we ought to do.  Form follows function, function follows need: and that’s been the guiding principle for me as I’ve worked with other government departments in the UK and internationally to help them understand how to improve their K* work.

A framework I really like is the one developed by Sarah Michaels in her 2009 publication, which we have adapted for the chapter on knowledge intermediaries in our book Knowledge, Policy and Power in International Development: A Practical Guide.  Sarah distinguished between six different functions that K* workers can perform, from simply disseminating information to the right people at the right time through to building the adaptive capacity of local institutions so that they can become self-sustaining in terms of activities, funding and their role in society.

Six different knowledge intermediary functions

The point that emerges from this is that anyone can do K* at any time: it depends on the need and the context.  As we say in the book, you don’t need a specific job description to do K*.

And this is what excites me about the conference: the range of people who are coming to share their experiences and learning during a wide range of panel sessions about what it means to work at K*, to improve the flow of knowledge between researchers, citizens, politicians and practitioners to government, the private sector.  I know there’ll be too much to talk about in three days but I also know learn a huge amount about what is already being done, and will make some great connections that will serve me well in future.

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3 Responses to Once a K* practitioner, always a K* practitioner

  1. Part of me agrees with Louise -and I know Louise so it is difficult to question her own experience (not because I know her but because I know she knows that she is talking about). She is, as far as I can gather, a knowledge broker (etc.) and one with the right credentials. But I still feel that the emphasis on K* (not happy about the term but I’ll use it nonetheless, I give up) in a way that is separate from content and context is rather dangerous. * demands that the person, team, organisation, etc. belongs to the communities it is trying to *. This means that if a person says that he (or she) is a * then he must abide by the rules of both communities. It must be accountable to both. It cannot just be a repackaging, or editing for different audiences, or creating nice tables, or videos, or facilitating access to information. All of this is useful but it is not what this is about.

    Robert Hoppe’s work on Boundary Workers is the best i have found on this issue: http://works.bepress.com/robert_hoppe1/15/ I highly recommend this work.

    I feel that like many of the things we work in we are getting over exited about the term (*) and losing track of the work itself. I hope this event proves me wrong. We’ll see.

    Let’s not forget that there are plenty of * out there already: think tanks are one such *: they should (emphasis on should) be simultaneously working with/in academia and policy. Special advisers are another. Parties * between policies and citizens. The media plays a * role too. Etc. by focusing on * as a separate area of expertise we risk forgetting about these other institutions. We’ll fund ‘infomediaries’ instead of public libraries (for instance to increase their online presence); or research programmes based in consultancies and NGOs instead of universities (which are necessary not just for fundamental research but also to train the next generations of researchers and policymakers and, yes, for *, too); or NGOs instead of political parties and their programmatic capacity (we may not like political parties but these are the basis of the systems of government of most -if not all- countries); or the blogs instead of the media (the real media, the newspapers that people read, the TV stations that people rush to at night, the radio stations that they listen on the bus and which are an indispensable institution for any democracy).

    The challenge then is not to overdo it. To recognise that this * role is already being played by many organisations and individuals who are not * professional (does that even exist) and whose professions are vital to the functioning of society. The questions ought to be:

    How do we help THEM be better *?

  2. Louise says:

    Valuable points, Quique, and it won’t surprise you to know that they’ve have come up during our panels and round tables. Perhaps I wasn’t very articulate in my initial post– what I was trying to say was that anyone can do what we’re calling K*: it’s the functions that are important not the fact that you’re badged as a translator, broker, whatever. K* is a term coined to get over the proliferation of terms that we think are actually getting in the way (mobilisation, transfer, exchange, translation etc) of understanding that we’re all talking about the same broad issue which is that there are things that can be done to improve the flow of knowledge in whatever system we’re working in. What this conference is about is finding the common practices and understandings between sectors and countries, so we can all learn.

    We have people here from think tanks, academia, consultancies, federal government, provincial government, NGOs, bilaterals, multilaterals – all concerned with ensuring that knowledge improves policy, practice, research, civil society etc etc. The focus of discussions has been on outcomes for people, it has been on understanding that what’s important is to conceive of the whole picture, not just a bridging function between worlds that are often represented as being separated but actually aren’t. And while we don’t have anyone from a political party, politics has certainly been a big part of discussions. And we’ve been talking web 2.0 as well as newspapers, tv, radio, drama, art and storytelling. I guess there could be a misconception that we’re trying to invent something new – but that’s not the case at all (which means we do need to work hard to overcome that misconception).

    As Jason Blackstock has just said to me, K* is a community of practice not a union badge: I’m sorry if my post gave you the opposite impression! You may hate the term, but the way I look at things, you’re a K* practitioner too, Quique…

  3. Graham Thiele says:

    Thanks Louise and Quique for insights into some thinking that I wasn’t familar with. Have to admit that this is first time to hear of K*. I like the figure too. I was struck by similarities with some recent writing on innovation brokering by Laurens Klerkx and others. Probably you have looked at this already, Graham.

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