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Tried and True, Yet Fresh and New: A Conversation About the Spanish Policy Communication Toolkit

Some development questions never seem to go away. Questions such as: How do we reduce poverty so that around the world basic needs are met? How can countries accelerate their journey to self-reliance? And the answers to these questions are often complex.

Yet one answer always rises to the top—use evidence to inform decisions. And one tool to help decision makers bridge the gap between evidence and policy also withstands the test of time: The PACE Policy Communication Toolkit.

Research can, and should, have a profound impact on policymaking, but without effective communication between the research and policy worlds, the significance of research findings can be lost. The toolkit consolidates more than 30 years of training resources developed by PRB to increase the use of evidence in policy and decision making.

PRB uses the toolkit often, adapting it to be used by different audiences all the time. One of the most regular uses of the toolkit is as a source of content for the annual Policy Communication Fellows Program, hosted by PRB’s Policy, Advocacy, and Communication Enhanced for Population and Reproductive Health (PACE) Project. The program brings together Ph.D. students from U.S. Agency for International Development priority reproductive health countries over the course of a year, with a five-day in-person workshop hosted alongside a handful of remote webinars. The program and toolkit, with their joint focus on policy communication, were established simultaneously about 30 years ago.

“Sustainability” for Policy Advocates

I recently sat down with Amparo Gordillo-Tobar, a 1999 alumna of PRB’s Policy Communication Fellows Program, to talk about her time as a fellow and her recent work translating the toolkit to Spanish. After finishing the PRB fellowship, Amparo completed her Interdisciplinary Ph.D. at Tulane University, worked for the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), and is now a senior health economist at the World Bank, managing the health portfolio for Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador.

At PAHO, Amparo served as the adviser for health economics and financing and helped create a network of health economics associations in Latin America. She utilized the skills gained while she was a fellow, but her ability to share those resources was limited. “All I had was my binder!” At the time, the toolkit was not yet online and publicly accessible. “At the end I ended up with just three pages from the binder, the skills that I would use the most.” And what were these pages? “One was KISS—‘Keep it Simple, Keep it Short,’… The other was the one on writing for policy audiences, conversational writing, and the other was on presenting a memo. But it was three pages…I used to carry the pages around.”

Keeping the Toolkit From Becoming the Dodo

Despite the decades that have passed, the skills offered in the toolkit remain relevant due to the toolkit’s ability to adapt. As Darwin put it, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent; it is the one most adaptable to change.”

We don’t include a session on how to present memos anymore. We do, however, include a session on social media. We also don’t include a full session on “KISS” anymore. What sets this toolkit apart from others, and what has allowed the Policy Fellows program to thrive and receive more and more applications each year, is its ability to change and shift as the policy landscape shifts (Check out our session titled “Understanding the Policy Landscape”!).

The toolkit is refreshed often to ensure content is both up-to-date and applicable to a growing audience. Just last year we added an entirely new “Youth Leaders” module for youth-led and youth-serving advocacy and accountability organizations. Recognizing that young people are becoming more actively engaged in advocacy and are gaining traction as valued participants in policy discussion, this new curriculum engages youth to develop their policy communication knowledge and skills.

Practical Skills for Meaningful Change

Back to Amparo.

Eventually even the three pages she carried with her were lost. But she kept using the skills, now second nature to her, and has seen those skills contribute to meaningful changes.

“Those skills became a parameter for discussing, presenting, and interacting in the field. I remember, for example, working in Salvador Bahia in Brazil. There was a lot of opportunity to be able to discuss [how] to incentivize and establish a system to pay more attention to pregnant adolescents, in an effort to curb maternal mortality and improve the care provided for teenage pregnancy. So, some of these [policy communication] skills were totally in place because the discussion was ‘What do you prioritize in a moment of decisionmaking?’”

Amparo used her skills to impact change. She attributed her ability to encourage Brazilian policymakers to develop an innovative policy that helped reduce adolescent pregnancy complications to the Policy Fellows Program. The practical experience she gained as a fellow and applied over the years enabled her to collaborate with Brazilian officials to establish the “…cartao vermehlo, a small card adolescents would use to identify them as a high-risk patient, [which] helped to reduce complications with adolescent pregnancies.”

Of course, the skills Amparo gained as a fellow aren’t limited to just this one success—since completing the Policy Fellows program she has used her skills to further health policy change on many other issues in the region. For example, in 2017 she led a discussion with national lawmakers in Central American countries on prioritizing sugary drinks taxes. Using her skills she translated complex price elasticity estimations and modeling for each country into the pros and cons of taxation. She clarified benefits of curbing sugary drinks consumption, important incremental recovery of public funds, and resulting long-term behavior changes to help prevent obesity and noncommunicable diseases. Her mastery of the skills gained from the program allowed her to simplify these complex dynamics and facilitate a productive discussion with national lawmakers to answer the question “What do you prioritize in this moment of decisionmaking?”

Moving Toward Universal Access

Though she found herself regularly using the policy communication skills from the toolkit, Amparo was well aware that the online toolkit wasn’t accessible to those who didn’t speak English.

“When I discovered two years ago that the toolkit was online, I was set on a mission to translate those documents. The three pages were long lost. When I realized it was online, I was like, ‘Okay this is not possible. It is not in Spanish!’ I couldn’t share it; I had to translate it piece by piece so I said, ‘No. We have to do it in Spanish.’ And then I began the process.”

She asked PACE, “If I get the funds can you supervise, review, check the contents?”

Eventually she identified a fund to help translate the tools. “The Nordic [Development] Fund came and it was the perfect moment—the Zika outbreak. We needed people to understand, to better manage the communication to advocate for Zika patients.”

Amparo had found a “window of opportunity,” a window when, as she was taught as a fellow, a problem, a solution, and the political environment moved together to create an opportune space and time for change. Communication about Zika was the problem, the toolkit was the solution and, because of the level of threat of the Zika outbreak, political will was clear. Just like she remembered from the “Fundamentals of the Policy Process” session in the toolkit, Amparo used her communication skills and the timely moment to strengthen her advocacy to fund the Spanish translation. Since then she has used the translated content in the World Bank’s flagship course on health systems for Central American Policy Makers and technical officials.

Today, the PACE Policy Communication Toolkit is available online and—through the goodwill and perseverance of dedicated individuals like Amparo—in English, French, and Spanish. Created more than 30 years ago, it is unique in its ability to stay relevant. Now, its increased accessibility to policy champions around the world will keep it thriving for the next 30 years and beyond.