Impact in the Age of Information
Ideas can be insidious. Deployed at a specific moment, into fertile space, they plant roots and grow. Sometimes faster than expected. In 2002, the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, writing in the pages of The New Yorker, alleged that the “genocidal" regime of Saddam Hussein had possible ties to Al Qaeda. While the veracity of this information remains debated, the suggestion had resonance - particularly within an American administration eager to respond to the attacks of September 11, 2001. In a press conference, then-President George W. Bush cited the article as evidence of Saddam Hussein’s “barbaric behaviour toward his own people” before Vice President Dick Cheney, in a televised interview, called the Goldberg piece “devastating,” implying the article served as undeniable proof.
Goldberg would stand by his reporting, even as history chipped away at its apparent truthfulness. However, it was the idea behind Goldberg’s story, not the evidence, that remained “devastating.” The Bush Administration would soon launch an intervention that continues to reverberate throughout Iraq and the Middle East.
While the article did not cause the US intervention, it illustrates how the wrong kind of information can have an outsized impact in the policymaking process. The incumbent challenge for governments, who find themselves duty-bound to respond with action, and academics, eager to tackle complex questions in the empirical world, is how to create a structure to immunise political practice against venerating errors masquerading as insight.
In recent years, academia has engaged deeply with this puzzle, spawning the impact agenda and field of knowledge exchange. While these practices can take multiple forms, knowledge exchange serves either to inject academic insight into the world of practitioners or help practitioners and policymakers navigate complicated sectors and industries with guidance from experts.
Since July 2016, our Department has been home to the Oxford Policy Dialogue (OxPoD). The programme, created by Carlotta Minnella and myself and facilitated by Adam McCauley, seeks to connect experts and academics from relevant fields with analysts and policymakers in Her Majesty’s Government on the topic of countering violent extremism, or CVE.
Countering Violent Extremism, as a practice, involves a range of potential interventions, usually sponsored or designed by the state, to address patterns of individual or community-level radicalization. CVE has emerged as a more comprehensive response than kinetic counter-terrorism, as the former requires responses informed by fields ranging from social psychology to international relations. To leverage academic knowledge, then, demands a concerted and flexible network approach, pushing through barriers that usually divide scholarly fields. OxPoD, through a diverse set of presentations, challenge sessions, workshops, and innovative use of new platforms, is encouraging government representatives to consult the latest research, and exploring tactics for feeding vital inputs into various stages of the policymaking process. These practices have driven change in organisational cultures, as barriers between research and practice narrow and an exchange driven by policy demand and academic supply emerges.
The challenges for collaborating on CVE, or terrorism more broadly, are the different aims and incentives for the parties involved. For researchers, discourse-changing security events, such as the attacks of September 11, highlight moments of fertility, providing opportunities to draw insight from disaster. For policymakers, the same event activates the political reflex. However, this reflex, and the speed it is deployed, shortens the window for academic or expert engagement.
In a March 2018 event, hosted by the Home Office and attended by intergovernmental bodies, OxPoD invited a range of experts to present their most recent findings. One presentation, which looked at how insurgent or non-state fighters use social media in theatres of conflict, demonstrated that the latest methods – data-scraping the digital environment and processing the metadata – can reveal new patterns about how insurgent groups move during conflicts and how they narrate their experience. This presentation revealed the important disjunctures between the image conflict groups use to recruit and the lived experience of war, and had the potential to isolate junctures for government intervention aimed at weakening or challenging the appeal of these groups. OxPoD’s aim is to provide opportunities for these new insights to gain traction, or simply occupy space, within government ranks, while relying on the contemporary pledges for evidence-based policymaking to take root.
Research has long shown that decision makers prompted with and by uncertainty are more apt to grasp information that is available and coherent. These heuristics, or reasoning shortcuts, help reduce the world to observables and guide action in key moments. Knowledge exchange and impact work can ensure evidence-based research serves as foundations for these heuristics – ensuring the White Papers and contacts in reach of government officials can offer vetted and relevant lessons. The practice is not about crafting policy but improving the information ecosystem from which policy is developed. The challenge for academics is to ensure the information offered in these critical moments is not simple for simplicity’s sake, but useful for policy’s sake.
Andrea Ruggeri is Associate Professor of International Relations and Fellow in Politics, Brasenose College
Follow Andrea Ruggeri on Twitter @aruggeri_eu