1. Diagnosing the problem

1.3 Systemic factors: the political and institutional environment

A final step helps you consider the wider political and institutional environment, how it affects the persistence of a particular problem and where reform is most likely to come from. Understanding political context is a key part of understanding how knowledge, policy and power relations interact with each other and what this means for how research-based evidence is taken up and used. Asking five questions helps you develop this contextual analysis:

  1. Which branch of government holds the key to change?
    In most democracies, government is split into three parts: parliament, the civil service and the judiciary. This separation is intended to provide a series of checks and balances, as all three are involved in policy-making, albeit to different extents. Discussing the relationships between all three branches can help in uncovering whether these checks and balances work at all, and where the real blockages lie.
  2. Where and how does political debate occur?
    If political debate happens out in the open, there will be few blockages and it may be most helpful to actively engage in it. Where debate happens behind closed doors, or where there are strong vested interests involved, it will be difficult to engage, and you will need to consider other groups through which you could work to influence policy. Referring back to your influence and interest matrix will help you identify who those might be.
  3. What role do informal politics play?
    Informal politics, whether personality-, patronage- or group-based, can play an important role in policy-making. Where informal politics are strong, they can override formal policy-making procedures and block change from happening.
  4. Is there really capacity to make change happen?
    Many developing country governments have limited capacity to make change happen. Civil servants may be ineffective, political parties may have such a tenuous hold on power that they find it hard to implement substantive change or voting patterns may be so entrenched that change becomes unlikely – particularly if the change is designed to benefit marginalised groups who are less likely to vote.
  5. How do external forces influence change?
    Donor relationships, international dialogues and processes can have a strong influence on policy-making processes.