Interview with Mr. Bekir Gür (Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research – SETA)

Interview with Mr. Bekir Gür (Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research)

Evaluation Series – II 

As Centre for Policy and Research Turkey, we conducted an interview with Mr. Bekir Gür, director of Social Studies at SETA Foundation (Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research) to discuss the utilization of scientific knowledge provided by policy research and evaluation studies in decision-making processes in Turkey. Mr. Gür received his M.A. degree on instructional systems from Florida State University and his Ph.D. degree in instructional technology from Utah State University where he also worked as a postdoctoral researcher. Currently, he teaches at Yıldırım Beyazıt University as an Assistant Professor. We have discussed about a wide range of issues with Mr. Gur, including the importance of think tanks in Turkey and the impact of information they produce on policy making process. This interview was conducted as second part of the series which is published within Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey’s project regarding the evaluation of government policies. In this second part of the evaluation series, we aim to demonstrate the implications of evidence-based policy making in Turkey from the perspective of a civil society organization. We would like to thank Mr. Bekir Gür for participating in this interview of Evaluation Series.

Synopsis of the Interview

“In Turkey, politics is discussed widely…however, we think that social research is seriously overlooked.”

 “We did not have the opportunity to do research as much as we wanted…The reason is simple: we could not find qualified experts at a desired level…because such institutions are relatively nouveau in Turkey, in other words they do not have a deep-rooted history.”

 “Due to recent developments in Turkey, research results are now being utilized…The AK Party government benefits from a certain number of public opinion research when they needs to make a decision about crucial topics. Of course, this is due to their mindset, which understands the significance of scientific knowledge in decision-making processes. In this sense, it might be argued that The AK Party is highly open to scientific knowledge and research results.”

“Since politics has been normalized, public demand is coming into prominence; therefore it does not matter whether a politician pragmatically considers her party’s future or she really intends to do what the constituency wants, she now feels the need to know what the society wants and desires.”

 “No where in the world comes a government under the rule of one or more think tanks. No single think thank can replace the government.”

“As political analysts, our role is to recognize and demonstrate pros and cons of policy alternatives. This is our duty. And contrary to what is believed, this work is not so partisan or ideological, conversely it is highly rational based upon a scientific foundation.”

“You may have a political position but what matters most is either to produce scientific, objective data or bring them to the attention of public opinion. Thereby, our role is by no means to make decisions.”

“Think tanks do exist to be influential. Thus, if you want to be effective, you need to talk to your addressee a little bit. You have the opportunity to be influential unless you use a language that discredits and humiliates your addressee.”

“Public institutions cannot be inherently critical of their own work… We truly believe in the importance of civilian control and observation. In a democratic system, states can establish their own research institutes to investigate various policy issues. However, in my opinion it is still important that their work is subject to civilian observation and assessment.”

“We observe that capacity development is already happening in Turkey. What actually makes me enthusiastic is though the latest democratization package. In my opinion, it is a historic package because this is the first time that Turkey has taken a serious, brave step without the guidance from Europe or some other place.”

 “This sector’s future looks bright. In a way Turkey is an increasingly democratizing country despite its deficiencies and struggles. In a democratic country, what society thinks and wants should be more and more important in decision-making processes; therefore, a system which imposes a top-down approach by ignoring these requests cannot remain long.”

Full text of the Interview

Mr. Gür, I would like to thank you again for sparing your time for this interview. Could you briefly describe the mission of SETA Foundation (Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research) for our readers? Which deficit do you attempt to meet in Turkey?

In Turkey, there are a limited number of such institutions, particularly the ones related to social research. Thus, we consider that social research is seriously overlooked. In Turkey, politics is discussed widely; although both of them are mentioned, domestic policy is discussed more compared to foreign policy. In such research centers though, more often than not social research is not conducted. That is why we work in this field. Of course social research involves a wide range of issues. We do not claim that we work in every domain; indeed we do not work so. For instance, we previously conducted a study on media and youth. We work in the area of education, about which we are assertive. Besides these, we carry out studies related to economy.

As I have stated, SETA Foundation did not choose to be a completely political-science-research-focused institute from its inception. Institutions similar to ours in general work on foreign policy issues, and even in this area, there are not enough experts and research studies. Honestly, due to the difficulty of finding experts in social studies, we cannot work to the degree that we desire. In a sense, we are not able to conduct the studies on this field that we wish. Moreover, the research area that these kinds of organizations focus is by definition not limited to technical issues. A lens/perspective is required such that studies conducted by your institution reflect the perspective of your institution. Accordingly, researchers who embrace this perspective are needed but that is not always easy to achieve.

Academics know very well how to write an academic paper. However, the major problem that these institutions have is that academics feel alienated when drafting policy analysis. Thereby, we cannot do research in every field we ideally want to analyze. For example, so far we have endeavored to research on women issues but we could not do it to the extent we desired because we could not organize a team in the way that we wished. We have conducted some research. Nevertheless,we did not have the opportunity to do research as much as we wanted. As I stated, the reason is simple: we could not find qualified experts at our desired level. And this problem is not unique to us; it also exists in other institutions. Because such institutions are relatively nouveau in Turkey, in other words they do not have a deep-rooted history for as long as 20 or 30 years. This is a new sector as a result, which has several positive and negative sides. To recap, we believe that cultural and social studies are crucial in Turkey as a growing power, and due policies should be developed in these fields.

Besides the lack of supply of social research in Turkey, which refers to a limited number of researchers and academics in this field, what do you think about politicians’ demands for these research studies?     

Since there was no demand, this sector could not have grown until today. So why were there less number of research institutes 20 or 30 years ago? Because the political landscape or decision makers did not require them. In other words, perhaps decision-making was ideological or perhaps research results were overlooked. Due to the recent developments in Turkey, research results are now being utilized. Particularly, the AK Party government is highly responsive to the fieldwork. Therefore, the main reason why the number of these think tanks has increased during the last decade, which is related to demand side of this issue, is that the government, specifically the prime minister, is open and responsive to such research studies. So, the AK Party government benefits from a number of public opinion researches when it needs to make a decision about crucial issues. Of course, this is due to their mindset, which understands the significance of scientific knowledge in decision-making processes. In this sense, it might be argued that The AK Party is highly open to scientific knowledge and research results. Surely this might have several causes; one of them is the deployment of a great number of academics at AK Party’s top management. It is important that Beşir Atalay who is a sociologist and a former rector is present there. More examples can be given and augmented, but after all somehow there is responsiveness of knowledge. There is sensibility.

A lot of public organizations conduct scientific research now. So they do various workshops when they prepare policy or strategic documents. It has become a style of the government. For instance, think about the resolution process. As a matter of fact, the resolution process seems like an ‘action research.’ First, you collect data, meet the general public, and form the committee of Wisemen who then prepare a report. Then, you take that report based on which you determine and implement policies. From this aspect, the government seriously follows scientific procedures throughout the policymaking process. Hence, this makes institutions that create such data and knowledge much more significant. Consequently, demand increases.

We should also mention that there was military tutelage over democracy before as a result of which scientific information was not needed. Currently the major factor that increases the flow of information is the gradual normalization of politics. Since politics has been normalized, public demand has gained prominence; therefore it does not matter whether a politician pragmatically considers her party’s future or she really intends to do what the constituency wants, she now feels the need to know what the society wants and desires. This is a consequence of the normalization of politics, which was possible largely due to the fact that the AK Party has downgraded the judiciary and military tutelage – especially thanks to the referendum in 2010. The more the politics is normalized, the more public demand is taken into consideration. And I think that when you have a government willing to listen to public demand, studies that focus on the question of ‘what do the public think?’ become more significant.

Apart from individuals, what does lead the AK Party to be more responsive to scientific knowledge? 

The AK Party is already institutionally strong in this sense. For instance, R&D of The AK Party is fully operational. To be more specific, it is not an R&D that looks good only on official papers. The AK Party uses separate mechanisms and various types of data to a great extent; it does not utilize only one database. They do not conduct surveys only. In addition to surveys, they conduct straw polls within the party organization. Plus, the party either surveys different civil society organizations or seeks input from key informants in particular cities. They probably use several other mechanisms that we do not even know about. As a result, they are able to crosscheck several data sources based on which they make decisions. This helps them see the bigger picture in a way – which candidate looks promising – and then they make decisions based on these evaluations. They are institutionally strong in this regard. If you remember, Sencer Ayata and his crew also facilitated a similar movement CHP to a certain degree but I guess it’s been discontinued.

Recently, the debate about private tutoring organizations has occupied political agenda and its backwash is still prominent to this date. A while ago, the SETA Foundation published a report in March, 2011 to which many media outlets often referred during this intense debate, for which you felt the need to make a press statement. The high point of that statement was: “We are not decision-makers but a think thank that makes policy recommendations. Within this capacity, we closely follow and evaluate the government’s education policies. As a political analyst, this is nothing but our job.” This statement raises a question: How do you describe the perceptions regarding policy research and evaluations in Turkey? Because of this news on the media, you were forced to re-explain your duty and your mission. So, is there a problem with perceptions?   

Nowhere in this world comes a government under the rule of one or more think tanks. No single think tank alone can take the government’s place. In Turkey, there are some myths like: “In the U.S. so-and-so think tank discussed a scenario related to Turkey and hence, Turkey will go to this war or play this role in the Middle East etc.” Indeed, such scenarios can always be discussed; after all it serves the mission of these institutions. They prepare various scenarios, do mind exercises but nothing more. This is just brainstorming. The decision-maker reviews these alternative scenarios and chooses the most convenient for her. So, the decision-maker does not make a decision just because a think-tank says so; the decision-maker chooses just one of the options and then implements it. There are some bizarre myths in Turkey. People attribute meaning to think-tanks more than what they are capable of doing.

I occasionally chat with young fellows. The first thing that I tell them is to set these myths aside and not to give credence to them. Think of it this way for instance, Ahmet Davutoğlu is a person who already knows more –let’s say, better than any IR professor in Turkey- about the events in Syria due to his position and his academic knowledge and experience. He knows the actors personally. Therefore, if you claim that “a think-tank has written a report about Syria, hence Davutoğlu is acting solely based on that report”, this does not reflect the truth at all. To give you an example, we supposedly wrote a report on education. And then The Ministry of National Education exactly did what we wrote. Although The Ministry of National Education can act in accordance with what we had written, this does not necessarily mean that it just follows diligently what we represented in the report. This actually shows that the report resonates with the decision maker’s viewpoints, burning questions or frame of reference. Hence, resonance must have occurred in this case. More clearly, it is not realistic to indicate that the decision-maker has made her choice just because that report has said so. There might have been some influence. But that is all.

When it comes to private tutoring institutions, the situation was different actually. Some data and interpretations were distorted and selectively used out of their context. For example, there is a chart where data from an academic from Middle Eastern Technical University is used. This is the most recent data about the relationship between socioeconomic status and the students who attend private teaching institutions. However, the data is from 10 years ago. We used this data since it is the more recent one; no other data is more current than this one. Then several newspapers have used this data figure without mentioning its source, date and cited another academic study. So, first of all, we believe that it is unfair to our academics. We did not prepare this chart and we indicated our source while quoting it. However, a simple detail exists in this case. The chart was divided into two parts: 250 Turkish liras and below and 250-500 Turkish liras. Probably 250 Turkish liras reflect minimum wage at that time. So, they could have at least explained this: the percentage of students with income below minimum wage in 2002 attended private tutoring is so-and-so. But they reported if those numbers were current numbers and as if we carried out the study after the Prime Minister made the issue public. In my opinion, their representation is neither academically nor ethically accurate. Because of that, we felt the need to make a statement. As I stated before, the roles should not be mixed up. As political analysts, our role is to recognize and demonstrate pros and cons of political options. This is our duty. And contrary to what is believed, this work is not so partisan or ideological, conversely it is highly rational based upon a scientific foundation.

For example, people, who may not share similar worldviews with us or other institutes also occasionally, indicate the risks that we point out in our own reports. They touch upon the same risks. Hence, here we are talking about a work that is based on rationality. Of course you may have certain political tendencies, which is true for the majority of think-tanks and for the rest of the world, but it does not mean that everything you write is arbitrary or without a rational basis. You may have a political position but what matters most is either to produce scientific, objective data or bring them to the attention of public opinion. Thereby, our role is by no means to make decisions.” Thereby, our role is by no means to make decisions. We have a quite modest role: we observe policies; evaluate them, occasionally get angry or feel glad. We labor to demonstrate both pros and cons of issues. However, it is honestly annoying to us when some people talk or show only advantages or disadvantages based on what we write in our reports because it is not our purpose to demonstrate something as purely advantageous or disadvantageous. In all disputes that we get involved in or broadcast about, every system has both pros and cons. So, none of our reports handles the subject just in terms of its positive or negative aspects.

And it is also the case that the decision-maker makes the decision s/he pleases anyway. After that, you do not have a chance to become influential if it is apparent that you will maintain your life as an opponent. Why do think tanks exist? Think tanks exist to become influential. In a sense, if you want to be effective, you need to talk to your addressee a little bit. You have the opportunity to be influential unless you use a language that discredits and humiliates your addressee.

At this point, I’m curious about the impact of research foundations or think-tanks that endeavor to influence decision-making processes by providing information that they claim is objective and scientific. Is it at a desired level?

I consider that sound studies pay off in Turkey. It may sound a little bit bizarre to you, but I believe that studies that diligently and thoroughly analyze a serious policy problem and create solutions for it always pay off. There is an easy way to confirm this claim. Let’s say that you directly talk to a representative of the Ministry of National Education or The Higher Education Council (YÖK) or Student Assessment and Selection Center (ÖSYM). When you talk to them, you will realize that these civil society organizations that monitor and evaluate policies are effective in a way. The degree to which they are effective is up to discussion. However, I can easily say that they are not ignored.

You earlier mentioned about rationality-based studies that these institutions conduct. But at the same time, you also shared that they may have political tendencies. Is not it refuting their objectivity or leading to polarization?

This depends on your view of science. If you do not take it from a pure positivistic stance – which is not so much defended in Turkey and in the rest of the world anymore – you may recognize that science has several different orientations, particularly social science. More clearly, it is a process that includes various perspectives on methodology, approaches or/and theory. Here, the major factor is the requirement for concerning about objectivity during the process of producing scientific information. Let’s say that you supposedly have a feminist background, and you speak from that background. If you tell it like it is, if you make no secret of it and let other people know about it; in my opinion this does not pose a problem for the data you collected or the evaluation you conducted. On the contrary, I believe that it enriches the data. Hence, the most crucial thing here is not to misguide your addressee. If you have a background, which affects your interpretations, then it is important to let your audience know about it. Transparency matters here. I mean that you may have a position, but if you claim objectivity by concealing it then the problem occurs. Otherwise, it does not reduce the level of objectivity in your study; conversely it paves the way to better evaluate the objectivity in your claims. Let’s say that you are against headscarf. If you conduct research on headscarf issue and if your interpretations reflect your position, you should not mask your actual standpoint. It is problematic if you conceal your position in your interpretations, you try to fit the data in parallel with your political view but you make it look like you do not. Nevertheless, if people know that you are opposed to headscarf and if you conduct your study without hiding this fact, you may very well be objective. For instance, cannot I research women as a man? Sure, I can. But if I am misogynist, and I conduct research that I later interpret by masking that fact, then it is a problem. If there is transparency, at least our readers can assess the degree of our objectivity in a better way although we may not be 100% objective.

At least they can easily weigh the information you presented…

Yes…Someone could also say that; “this person is conservative, this it makes sense that he will talk like that” or “this person maintains some distance from religion, it is normal that he interprets this way”. Hence, your research will not lose its value; as a matter of fact its real value will be exposed. It is also possible that someone may be opposed to the government but she talks positively about their work, which actually makes this information more objective and valuable. Or someone who is pro-government may critique them harshly. Here, the main point is not whether this person is pro- or anti-government or what her political position actually is. If you have a secret agenda and if you mask it, then the problem arises. Otherwise I think that your political position or so on does not pose a serious problem. After all, every human being has a political view.

Apart from policy analysis and evaluations conducted by civil society organizations, how do you find existing state-run research centers that produce scientific information?  

The government, and in general the Republic of Turkey, has several means to obtain information. There are various institutions. The first that comes to mind is Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TUBİTAK), which is not a small establishment that conducts both physical and social science research. Moreover, the state deploys several institutes similar to think-tanks. Considerable amount of information, which would be produced externally by non-state actors under normal circumstances, is produced by state institutions. However, there is a weakness that public institutions cannot be critical of their own work. For instance, data on education – what we have is probably less comprehensive than data accessed by the Ministry of National Education. Or let’s talk about staff members. In any medium-size institution, only 10 people conduct research in a given field, whereas in the Ministry of National Education hundreds of people study the same phenomenon. However, the data we produce or someone else produces might be qualitatively different from the data produced by the Ministry. This is because the Ministry or other public institutions might be highly defensive, they can draw only a positive picture by considering their minister or director while the external organizations can be more critical.

It is indeed good that they are critical. If decision-makers are a little bit open to this criticism, they can then evaluate both data produced internally and externally. Consequently, you can assume that they make better decisions. So to answer your question, yes there is research centers that produce information located either within the government or in big research establishments. However, these are not enough. We truly believe in the significance of civilian control and observation. In a democratic system, states can establish their own research institutes to investigate various policy issues. However, in my opinion it is still important that their work is subject to civilian observation and assessment.”

Turkey has partnered on several projects with bilateral or multilateral organizations such as European Union, OECD, and The World Bank, and the partnership still continues to this date. How would you describe the impact of these organizations on the utilization of policy monitoring and evaluation for decision-making in Turkey?

Within the last decade, The EU has generated an important capacity. A lot of people learned how to do projects after which they have perhaps revised their decision making process, and many institutions revised their laws. New establishments have been founded. Therefore, it has certainly been effective. However, at this point, by the year of 2013, Turkey’s progress on EU membership seems quite obvious. When you think of these institutions, you realize that they only try to sell credit to Turkey and take projects from Turkey in a way. Hence, they do not excite me very much, since we already observe that capacity development is happening in Turkey. What makes me really excited is the most recent democratization package. In my opinion, it is a historic package because this is the first time that Turkey has taken a serious, brave step without the guidance from Europe or some other place; i.e. primarily the annulment of national oath, the permission for Kurdish private schools and granting freedom to wear head-scarf for public officers except for some professions. These have been produced as a national response to public demand. More clearly, Turkey has made these decisions by herself and started to implement them.

Therefore, in my opinion the most important thing is that Turkey has felt the need to listen public demand and improved its decision making accordingly. Of course, this reflects the level of improvement Turkey has made so far. In this sense, I frankly consider the last decade of Turkey as quite positive. Think of it this way; 10 years ago, Turkey was waiting at the door of the IMF, demanding for money, but currently it loans money to the IMF. As a citizen, it makes me happy and proud. I would like to see more developments like, and our efforts are designed to contribute. We need to expand this capacity a bit more. Although there are good macro-economic indicators, ameliorations, we still take into account serious difficulties in micro areas such as in social, economic and education studies. Hence, we are trying to contribute to creating solutions for those problems.

At this point, I will ask a bit theoretical question: Do you see a difference between policy analysis and evaluation?

Theoretically it could be replied in different ways, but I will answer practically based on my experience because the work we do is a bit practical one. What I mean by practical is that whether you monitor, evaluate or research a new policy depends on what you do at the end of the day. For example, we occasionally recognize a risk and when the government does not act on it, we proactively conduct a study. So, we may come to this conclusion having experienced other policies or our own research. In my opinion, this does not matter. At the end of the day, what matters is the question of why we are doing this research. Let’s say that we are doing this research in order to solve a deadlock or to understand the reasons of a deadlock and to resolve it, so we are offering alternative scenarios. Therefore, these things are deeply intertwined because you can make an observation and conduct research at the same time, or you conduct evaluation in the research or you simply cannot overlook observation while evaluating. Supposedly, we closely follow issues that are on the Ministry of National Education’s agenda. Currently, Kurdish education has been on top of the agenda, so we are conducting research on this issue. Hence, research topics are derived from our own observations, monitoring and evaluation in public. So what I mean is that once we observe that the government has taken a concrete step about an issue, which is probably followed by another step and which seems to create a dispute that will last not only for 2 days or 2 weeks but for a longer time, we focus on that issue further. Hence, there is a continuous feedback between monitoring, evaluation and research.

In general, we do not have the luxury to say that: “there is an ideal subject that is widely studied in the West, let’s study that”. This does not frequently happen due to a limited number of sources. Hence, we need to choose subjects in a more efficient way. We need to work on things that are on public agenda.

Let’s clarify this a bit more. There are a lot of examples in the world; some research or evaluation centers try to proactively set the agenda while others simply follow what has been done by the government or by the state. Do you think that our think tanks have a similar mission?

They might have such a mission. Many institutions might be paying attention to this. We do not want to be an institution that follows the government only from behind; we do not have such mission either. On the contrary, we put several topics on our agenda while they do not occupy a big space on governmental agenda.

Could you give an example?

For example, we wrote the report about private tutoring organizations 2 years ago; we did not write that just recently. Or for instance, we wrote a report about the teacher assignment system 3 years ago. It was a big issue then also but not as serious as we have it now. Or for another example, we publish reports about higher education all the time. Let’s say it is on the government’s agenda and we do not know how long it will go on like that. We suggest that since there is a need for a reform regarding the Higher Education Council (YÖK), let’s keep this issue on the agenda. It is possible but its impact is limited. To be honest, the agenda can easily change in a country like Turkey. Just consider this. The Prime Minister, Barzani, Şivan Perver and İbrahim Tatlıses met in Diyarbakır. This is a historical day with respect to ongoing resolution process and the Kurdish issue in our country. However, these debates might be shelved because of private tutoring classes. Consequently, your power to set the agenda is limited. Sometimes we publish a report and it does even make it to the news. But then an incidence might occur 2 weeks after and then they realize the report and they broadcast it. To recap, I think that many institutions have the desire to set the agenda. That is to say, most of them want it but we cannot always succeed.

Do you think that the pieces of the puzzle have fallen into place regarding evidence-based decision-making in Turkey?

It is a difficult question. It is hard to answer the extent to which the puzzle has been completed since individuals and decision-makers are still so important in our country. What I mean is that, today the president of a foundation might be open to negotiations; however his successor might not be so. As you may remember, the Higher Education Council (YÖK) took a decision on coefficiency by ignoring all else, and Turkey had to deal with this issue for 13 years. In respect to this, we went continuously back and forth; there were several lawsuits and many people were deprived of the right to education. Nevertheless, the overall picture that I see today is a good picture. In my opinion, the fact that the president will be elected by referendum generates a kind of insurance to prevent Turkish politics from derailing easily. In the past, presidents of the republic had either militarist backgrounds or were in military networks. So, he may have had tutelage over the public. From now on, I think that the shoe is on the right foot. The fact that the public will elect the president indicates that the state cannot completely turn its back on public demand, particularly in the higher education sector since the Higher Education Council (YÖK) is directly dependent on the president. Hence, knowledge generation regarding identification of public demand and how they should be responded in separate policies cannot lose its significance.

How do you see the future of civil society organizations that conduct research and produce scientific information in Turkey?

As I said before, this sector’s future looks bright. In a way Turkey is an increasingly democratizing country despite its deficiencies and struggles. In a democratic country, what society thinks and wants should be more and more important in decision-making processes; therefore, a system imposing a top-down approach by ignoring these requests cannot remain long. And I think that the AK Party’s success is associated with their responsiveness to these requests based on which they determine the policy. Think of it this way; the percentage of their votes was first 34% and then it has increased to 49%. How do they do that? They always are sensitive to public; they can mingle easily with the crowd and listen to their requests. Therefore, they take the steps in accordance with these demands; they do not take the public on. In my opinion, this responsiveness is nothing but good, in total, it both strengthens democracy in Turkey and prevents the politics from derailing in Turkey – as long as this responsiveness exists. So, I believe that course of events will always change for the better.      

Mr. Gür, we would like to thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and experiences.


© 2014 Research Turkey. All rights reserved. This publication cannot be printed, reproduced, or copied without referencing the original source.

Please cite this publication as follows:

Research Turkey (May, 2014), “Interview with Mr. Bekir Gür (Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research – SETA)”, Vol. III, Issue 5, pp.6-17, Centre for Policy Analysis and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, ResearchTurkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=6000)


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