20 May 2014

Over 30% of World Bank Policy Reports are NEVER downloaded. What about your own organisation?

Many thanks to Luz Marina Alvare at IFPRI for alerting me to this new World Bank Policy Research Working Paper by Doerte Doemeland and James Trevino (Which World Bank Reports are Widely Read?) and for providing the bullet points below, drawn from the paper.

  • Nearly one-third of their PDF reports had never been downloaded, not even once (see table above)
  • Another 40 percent of their reports had been downloaded fewer than 100 times
  • Only 13 percent had seen more than 250 downloads in their lifetimes
  • Well funded multi sector policy reports are likely to do better
  • There seems to be some evidence that a media push alone is not sufficient for a good dissemination
  • Policy reports in English received the largest number of downloads 
What to make of this?  

First, it is important to note that these Policy Reports are not what the World Bank classifies as "public goods" (e.g. World Development Reports, Policy Research Working Papers and Open Data)--they are mainly country and sector specific.  Nevertheless they include glossy things like country policy reviews, poverty assessments and public expenditure reviews (this site gives you an idea). These are things you would expect to be of interest to many policynakers, NGOs and researchers. 

Second, never downloaded is not the same as never viewed or never read.  And hard copies may be distributed to the audiences that do not have high speed downloading capacity.  

Third, these Reports tend to be quite country and sector specific so we should not necessarily worry too much about quantity of downloads and reads if the right people (e.g. who can make decisions or who can influence those who make decisions) are reading them. 

Nevertheless, a huge amount of money (our taxes, don't forget) goes into these reports and it is worrying that so few seem to be getting download even once!  With all these resources at its disposal, and given its platform, the Bank surely should, and could, be doing more to ensure their use. 

  • Make the language more accessible--often the language is too intimidating for non-economists or economists that do not have a PhD from a top US university
  • Co-author with non-Bank national authors.  I don't know if this is possible (these papers are designed to represent corporate views) but from my experience the positionally of the authors counts as to whether something is read in country-- whether or not the report is any good
  • Use social media and blogs to  get the word out and distill the messages in lively formats.  I often despair at even the short form policy briefs that many organisations put out under the name of communication.  They are written the world over in language that is designed to minimise risk rather than inspire action. 
  • Write fewer Reports. Can I really be advocating the provision of less information?  Well there is such a thing as saturation and the ability to prioritise is perhaps one of the least valued attributes out there in this "let it all hang out Internet world".  Is there a financial incentive to have a plethora of Reports or could there be a focus on fewer reports with a greater effort to build an audience for each?
These ideas aren't exactly rocket science, but the Bank needs to be worried about these stats and come up with it's own response (and it is great that the Bank is publishing this report about its Reports, let us not forget). 

But it is not just the Bank, it is all of us.  None of us can be complacent.  If we are complacent we are akin to a vanity press. 

Our work, if it is of the required quality, needs to be read, discussed, challenged, improved and factored into decisions that can help improve people's lives.  We all have a responsibility to mobilise high quality knowledge, whether our own or others. 


Simon said...

I find the lack of standard format to be off putting. For example, articles in peer-reviewed journals have a format that makes it easy to read the bits you want and the length is 10-12 pages, max. Reports from WB and similar are much longer and often have little in the way of reliable summarizing. Plus all the other disadvantages you mention!

Unknown said...

I concur with the suggestions proposed Lawrence. As researchers, we often write reports (very informative ones) without considering the dynamics around the end user, including their ability to know about the existence of new evidence; ability to access the reports; ease of reading and understanding the content and utilization.
1. Knowing about the existence of new evidence/reports. This is a challenge, even when reports are country specific. Information is frequently obtained through proactive search by a few interested individuals (may not be decision makers, could be fellow researchers) or at launches of these reports. For those not in any of the above loops, they will have minimal or no access to such information. This is where social media is necessary to reach out to masses and publicize/popularize the information.
2. Ability to access the reports. Whereas there is network access through which these reports can be downloaded, the quality of the connectivity is a vital determinant of whether a “bulky report” will be downloaded or not. I have observed in some government institutions where network connectivity is of poor quality, that personnel will most cases depend on colleagues outside the institution to share reports (if the latter knows about this information). Short but informative packaging of reports addresses issues around downloading as well as ease of reading.
3. Ease of reading and understanding the content. Just like you have said, these reports are often written in an intimidating language for non-specialized audiences and are lengthy affecting the understanding. The authors of reports should always ask themselves these questions “what audience will this report be valuable? What is the key message that audience should pick from the report? How will the audience be able to access this report?” prior to writing any report. This will have an effect of the language used and utilization of the report.

Varsha Upraity said...

While I do agree that the way that information is made accessible is important to an audience, it has been my experience (which therefore might be a limited one) that a lot of professionals in the development field don't read enough, unless it is a document that has been spelt out as being specific to the programme/project/initiative that they are a part of. Whether it is because they are overextended or feel that such readings are irrelevent or too difficult, there is very little space and time in an office where issues such as policy that are pertinent can be discussed simply for the sake of discussion and argument and clarification. I don't know whether this means that we should do powerpoints or more 'visual forms' instead of reports or organise something like weekly reading seminars at work for members who are interested, but I think people need to feel that their ideas are important and that these ideas must be exchanged and developed in order for them to become more relevant. I know the World Bank has taken a lot of initiatives such as the Open Data movement in an effort to make resources available but we need to keep in mind who these resources are meant for and whether the audience finds them pertinent in a tangible way and not just as a form of intellectual exercise.