Strategic reviews are not for the fainthearted. They require an honest look at the good, the bad and the ugly in order to help us learn better, identify good types of failure, and, ultimately, create space for innovation and experimentation. Despite these efforts, embarking on a strategic review can make the most eager learner feel a bit apprehensive – the threat of inertia lurking between extreme navel-gazing and blind cliff-jumping. After three years in start-up mode, it was time for us at MIT GOV/LAB to take a step back and figure out “what next?” 

Over the course of several months, we landed on three pillars to shape the direction of MIT GOV/LAB 2.0: 

  1. Produce scholars and scholarship. There is still a dearth of rigorous research on some of the most important questions in our field. As academics, we will continue to address this by producing evidence on citizen engagement and government responsiveness from behavioral and social science lenses. Beyond digging into the nuances of citizen voice, we want to unpack the needs and motivations of government officials as well. Part of this pillar is to train the next generation of scholars on cutting edge methods in political behavior, at MIT and in the global south. 
  2. Promote engaged scholarship. Too often, academic research is conducted in isolation, producing results that are handed down from on high, yet not relevant or useful to practitioners on the ground. Producing scholarship with equity front and center is central to how we conduct research. More on our approach below. 
  3. Expand the community of practice. As a small outfit, there is only so much research we can conduct first hand. That’s why we seek to expand the model of engaged scholarship to new groups. We’re hosting conferences and workshops, including Evidence in Governance in Politics (EGAP) and research for impact (r4i), to figure out the best way for academics and practitioners to work together. We are also developing tools to translate our approach to a broader audience interested in productive citizen voice and genuine learning. 

Produce and promote engaged scholarship

MIT GOV/LAB was founded on the premise that working with practitioners is critical to advancing knowledge and practice in the governance field. We knew the concept had potential, but we didn’t have a clearly articulated model for how to best collaborate with practitioners. We spent our first few years trying out different ways of working with partners – learning, failing, and iterating along the way. Now we are working to codify and communicate our working model. 

A key outcome of our planning process is centered on our goal to produce and promote engaged scholarship, which we define as rigorous research that is co-created by practitioners, grounded in local problems, but with lessons applicable to broader understanding of political behavior. Our model, developed with partners in East Africa and in the Philippines, focuses on sustained, multi-year, and multi-project collaborations between academics and practitioners, working together to identify questions that are important to both parties, to improve practice and theory.

The concept of engaged scholarship is not new (check out the Center for Democracy and Organizing’s white paper for a historical perspective). Yet we are particularly interested in applying this approach to issues of civic engagement and government responsiveness, especially in developing country contexts, where local practitioners are often disadvantaged by a range of power dynamics.   

Instead of considering engaged scholarship as a “nice to have,” we’re ensuring the concept is baked in to our projects from the beginning. One way to do this is through our selection of research projects. For example, we just launched a request for proposals (due August 31st) that requires submissions by academic-practitioner teams. As part of the application process, we ask teams to clearly state how their research question is relevant to practitioners. We also require them to complete a risk and equity matrix to highlight a range of considerations and impacts of conducting research in the field. 

In addition to our focus on engaged scholarship, the strategic review process helped to inform new streams of work including how to apply design-thinking to governance challenges and more fully integrating technology and advanced data analytics into our work. Though definitely a work in progress, we look forward to sharing our tools and getting feedback from the broader community. For now, we are excited about our next phase with MIT GOV/LAB 2.0, with an eye towards learning, iterating, and continuing to ask ourselves tough questions.