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Early Learnings from Using a Systemic Approach in a Governance Project in the Western Balkans

You may wonder why policies formulated in Western Balkan countries, or for that matter in other countries, don’t often reflect or use evidence coming from research. You may also wonder if the many research outputs produced every year are of any relevance to policy-making processes.
FROM: Martin Dietz, Zenebe B. Uraguchi – 09. June 2016
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In the Western Balkans, the relevance of the Social Science Research Sector (SSRS) continues to be limited because the system isn’t fully developed to provide evidence-based knowledge that can be fed into decision-making and public debate on reform processes.

This is exactly what PERFORM – Performing and Responsive Social Sciences project – aims to address initially in Serbia and Albania, and later in three more Western Balkan countries. Specifically, the project contributes to strengthening the social science community; facilitating linkages between social science research; and improving framework conditions, including better access to funding.

Helvetas’ experience with a systemic approach comes mainly from working in projects that have a focus on agriculture or sectors such as tourism or ICT. In this blog post, we share early experience of applying a systemic approach in a governance project, mainly focusing on the first learnings that are the result of ongoing reflections and discussions within the PERFORM team and others involved in the project. This experience in a way demonstrates systemic approach isn’t only about income and employment related projects, or it’s just working with private sector enterprises. PEFORM’s first intervention became tangible in August 2015 – that is, towards the end of its inception phase.

Root causes: understanding the social science research system

During the nine-months long inception phase, the focus of PERFORM was on getting to know the social science research system in Serbia and Albania, and the environment in which it’s embedded. Better understanding meant knowing the reasons why the system isn’t performing well in terms of meaningful contributions to political and socio-economic reform processes. This called for knowing the relationships among actors and systems, the centres of power, but also understanding values, assumptions and beliefs in the social science system.

The core of the social science research system in Serbia and Albania includes research institutes, faculties of private and state universities and think tanks, which are often organised as NGOs and run by researchers from universities, and Academies of Science. The Ministry responsible for Science and Higher Education sets the regulatory framework; Parliament and its Committee for Education and Science are key players in the research governance. PERFORM seeks to facilitate linkages between social science research with the political and the policy system, with civil society, the private sector and the media. All are systems in their own rights.

PERFORM conducted an assessment talking to a number of stakeholders involved in social science research and policy making to understand the root causes that prevented effective dialogue and exchange. Here are some examples of the findings:

  • Social scientists often considered research work for the government as a potential threat to their independence;
  • On the other side, government provided funding for research topics which had little relevance to the agenda of change and reform;
  • Policy-relevant research was largely funded by donors through national think tanks. This research was generally conducted in the form of short-term projects for which think tanks hired academics from universities;
  • Policy-relevant research therefore was fragmented and lacked coherence; the agenda was set by donors; and
  • A national research agenda that considered upcoming challenges for the society was missing.

International networking was happening, but at a low level. Incentives for excellence in research were missing. There was a lack of space where actors from social sciences and the policy arena discussed and collaborated. Government funding for social sciences was low, and the little money that was available, wasn’t spent effectively. Social science research in general wasn’t considered relevant by most key stakeholders in society – it was largely ignored.

The root cause for the limitation in the relevance of social science research to policy-making and public debate on reform processes was the lack of effective dialogue and exchange within the scientific community. Put simply, social science worked in relative isolation and tending to orbit around itself. Supporting functions and/or rules to strengthen the SSRS and its linkages to political reform processes (outcomes) were either not functioning well or absent.

The importance of building on opportunities

 The challenges mentioned above weren’t easy to address. PERFORM therefore looked into feasibility of making a difference by building on existing or emerging opportunities.

  • As a major driver of change, the EU accession process in both countries that started in 2015 brought significant opportunities for change on which PERFORM built on. For instance, the pre-screening of the Serbian national science system by the EU Commission identified numerous weak points, such as criteria and processes for allocating government funds to research, and performance assessment of scholars.
  • The Ministry of Education, Science and Technological Development (MoESTD) was keen to adjust the system. The EU accession process is an enormously complex task involving law makers, civil society, private sector, government negotiators and many others. Social science research will have the opportunity to contribute evidence and advice to this complex process.
  • There was an increased awareness among policy makers for the value and need of evidence in policy drafting. New legislation on higher education and research was passed by Parliaments in both countries in 2015. Implementation of this legislation through drafting of regulations and directives brings opportunities for change. In addition, new strategies for Regulatory Reform have come into place in Serbia.
  • There is a sizable group of social scientists who wanted to see change in the system, enabling them to conduct relevant research of a high quality. Contrary to common perception, PERFORM realised early that policy makers were interested and open to incorporate scientific evidence in the policy cycle (as an opportunity). However, mistrust and bureaucratic impediments hindered them to draw in social sciences

This shift in the external environment underlined the importance for PERFORM to continuously observe and assess changes in the wider system (including the national research system and the wider systems in which research systems are embedded and are affected by). This would allow PERFORM to tap into emerging opportunities.

From analysis to action in a polarised environment

The social science research systems, and the environment in which it was embedded, was highly polarised. There were field of tensions between faculties and research institutes, while the relationship with relevant government administrative bodies were characterised by a high level of mistrust on both sides.

The initial idea in PERFORM was to build national project offices under the umbrella of institutions (research institutes, faculties of private and state universities, think tanks) that were part of the system. However, PERFORM soon realised that this would place it as part of this polarised environment, making its role as an impartial facilitator practically impossible. PERFORM decided to set up national offices outside the system.

The project team learned early that PERFORM’s systemic approach required to be driven by problem areas that are identified by system actors, and not by solutions that the project would offer. Solutions were to be developed by systems actors – universities, researchers, government agencies, etc. The project’s interventions illustrate this point well.

Strengthening of the Social Science Community: the projected provided support to the Institute of Social Sciences and the Institute of Economics in Serbia to assess options how to improve access to and administration of research funding through a service centre. PERFORM funded a feasibility study which was completed in December 2015. Both institutes wanted to establish a service centre based on the findings and recommendations from the feasibility study.

It is expected that this will increase the volume of their research funds, participation in international research projects, and it will provide as a model for other research institutes.

The feasibility study has been completed, and both institutes work on a model to get the service centre off the ground. The MoESTD has indicated already that they are prepared to co-fund it.

Developing Systemic Linkages: this focused on bringing in social science researchers to evaluate planning tools used with informal communities and propose changes that would support effective community consultations. The research is being conducted in close cooperation with staff of the Ministry to ensure that the know-how will be with them. Pilot trials will be undertaken together.

PERFORM has started working with the Secretariat for Public Policies (SPP). The mandate of SPP is coordination and quality assurance in policy development. PERFORM is supporting SPP in identifying several complex policy projects and bringing social science researchers into the projects for feeding in specific evidence from research. The objective is to establish structures and mechanisms which will be conducive and in support of policy makers and social scientists working together in future.

Framework conditions and financing mechanisms: still in the inception phase, the project team was requested by the MoESTD of the Government of Serbia to support a process for developing a set of bylaws in support of the new Law for Science. The new bylaws were expected to stimulate better quality research, more relevance of the research and increased accountability.

PERFORM also supports the Ministry to establish a system for international evaluation of research proposals which is an essential measure for quality assurance of research. The working group has transformed into an institutionalised Social Science Advisory Group for MoESTD, which cannot be easily closed down with the next change in Ministerial leadership.

Key takeaways

  • Systems analysis as an ongoing exercise for gaining an understanding of the reasons for the underperformance of a system.
  • Much of the work of PERFORM is to facilitate changes in the interaction among different actors of the social science system. Considering the number of stakeholders and the difference in interests, this increases complexity and requires PERFORM to accept a fairly high level of uncertainty. Faced with rapid changes in the environment, PERFORM is taking relatively small steps, feeding earlier learnings into new interventions and moving towards solutions that are created by system actors.
  • Uncertainty in the system also requires an agile management practice: while adhering to some key principles, PERFORM is flexible to respond to a changing environment and emerging new opportunities.
  • Understanding relationships, power distributions, and incentives for change are very important. Bringing forward change requires PERFORM to interact with different levels of government and with regional bodies to stimulate effective feedback loops.
  • PERFORM works with high-level decision makers (Ministers, State Secretaries) delegate and create space to experiment and to develop solutions at lower levels in administration. Skills of project team to facilitate and manage expectations constitute an important element of project implementation. Interventions evolve from long discussions with systems actors and stakeholders; they lead and implement interventions.
  • PERFORM facilitates ongoing and first-hand learning and an on-going feedback of lessons learned into new solutions. We assume that piloting linked with learning is an effective way to establish improved systems.

 Additional sources

Senior Advisor Value Chain & Market Development

Martin Dietz is the Project Manager of PERFORM.

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