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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.


In this chapter, we have discussed:

  • how to define a problem, using diagnostic tools such as the ‘five whys’ for a first approximation of the problem and a fishbone diagram for more detailed diagnosis;
  • how to analyse the stakeholders of a problem, using an interest and influence matrix for mapping where different interests and influences lie;
  • how to diagnose and respond to complexity, learning how to differentiate between centralised and distributed capacity, agreed and divergent goals and certain and uncertain change pathways; and,
  • finally, how to assess wider systemic factors, through the use of five questions.

It will be important to document this analysis: keeping the maps and diagrams you have produced, the analysis you have done and the conclusions you have drawn from all of this. Some of the analysis may be in the form of a narrative document (such as in the example of Nepali migrants in Diagnosing complexity and uncertainty) to the level of detail you require. Others, such as key conclusions and actions from the workshops, may take the form of bullet pointed action lists that set out what you intend to do and by when. Not only will you need to refer to all your documents again, but it can also be helpful to share your analysis with others as you begin to engage with them.

Also in this chapter:

  1. Defining the problem
  2. Diagnosing complexity and uncertainty

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