Practicing Kstar: from ideas to action

Practitioners working across the knowledge-policy interface play an increasingly important role in the drive towards evidence based policymaking. At the K* Conference 2012, a panel of knowledge practitioners shared their experience and personal insights in being at the sharp end of policy delivery.

Kstar with practitioners

Kstar with practitioners

Policy is a complex, messy process that does not follow an orderly linear path. Policy design, implementation and evaluation involve a myriad of actors and a diverse array of knowledge. Interacting in a web of power and politics, it is difficult, near impossible, to entangle and understand when, where and why policy decisions should and could be made.

Understanding and working through this complexity, knowledge practitioners aim to smooth the path between knowledge producers and users. But, the world of policy is not an impartial, objective or benevolent one. Thus, knowledge practitioners, as facilitators of evidence, have an important role to play in ensuring all types of knowledge are voiced in the knowledge-policy dialogue.

Surviving an avalanche of information

Professor Andrew Campbell – Director of the Research Institute for Environment and Livelihoods at  Charles Darwin University reflected on his experience in helping regional watershed management leaders to become K* practitioners

For Andrew, understanding knowledge users needs is key. After commissioning a study to explore and understand what policy and decision makers are looking for, Andrew found that researchers were “effectively sending knowledge users unsolicited junk mail”. Explaining the key findings, Andrew said, “we found they did not want us to send them information, they wanted help to avoid drowning in information, and to work out from all the competing knowledge claims how to build useful local learning systems and evidence bases from their own activities.”

To avoid drowning in this ‘info-glut’, which knowledge users said “was like trying to sip out of a fire hydrant”, Andrew and his colleagues worked with ‘non-experts’ to develop their skills in navigating the vast and expanding knowledge base.

What was key to the success of this project? In a similar vein to the lessons shared during the knowledge translation panel session, Andrew emphasised the importance of participation and collaboration, founded in strong and trustworthy relationships. Most importantly, knowledge production, brokering, translation and management should not be left solely to the experts. “Regional punters, amateurs, farmers working in the field” should, for Andrew, also play an inherent role in the Kstar process.

Delving deeper into his personal insights working as a knowledge practitioner, we interviewed Andrew and asked him to share some further thoughts on what he feels Kstar professionals should take into consideration when working across the knowledge-policy interface, what challenges they face and how to overcome difficulties.

Politics rules

Pierre Ongolo Zogo – Centre for the Development of Best Practices in Health (Cameroon) and McMaster University – shared his experience supporting evidence informed policymaking in Cameroon’s health systems.

Kstar 2012 - Pierre Ongolo Zogo reflects on his experience as a Kstar practitioner

Kstar 2012 – Pierre Ongolo Zogo reflects on his experience as a Kstar practitioner

In Pierre’s experience as a Kstar practitioner, context is king. In Cameroon there are 249 tribes, who speak a mixture of French and English, who live in a diverse and vibrant landscape that encapsulates both rainforest and desert, a population who are both Christian and Muslim. Cameroon, it is clear to see, is a country defined by its diversity and complexity. When there are such diverse types of knowledge, culture and history, Pierre stressed that talking about evidence-informed policy is difficult.

It is especially difficult in a land ruled by chiefs and heads of state that have been in power for a long time. In Pierre’s role as knowledge broker during a project which saw Cameroon’s health system transition to a new funding mechanism focused on community care, relationships with bureaucrats was key.  Trust, and understanding the political context, was crucial as the knowledge being translated went against the grain of those in power.

Commentating on discussion, Laurens Klerkx – Professor of Communication and Innovation Studies at Wageningen University – asked whether it is important for knowledge intermediaries to remain neutral. “How can they remain neutral when they have a normative message that focuses on behaviour change?” he questioned. Picking up on this issue during discussion, Alex Bielax, said where knowledge is contested, the “activities of Kstar practitioners are in real danger of being undervalued”, a critical point to bear in mind when practicing knowledge brokering.

In this interview, Laurens provides offers some practical guidance for Kstar professionals and keenly points out that research knowledge is just one piece of a complex evidence-based jigsaw.

From discussion it is clear to see that working as a Kstar practitioner, understanding knowledge users needs and the political context in which you are operating is the key to success. Practicing Kstar is complex, and at times be can frustrating, but if the role of a Kstar practitioner is to be fruitful, it is crucial that we build upon these case studies and build a loud, coherent and cogent voice that knowledge intermediaries have impact, are of worth, and continue to play a valued role in the policy process.


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