A short while ago I attended an excellent SHARE Network and Vitae event on influencing policy, which was set in the context of universities increasingly seeking to demonstrate their value to society through mechanisms like the REF impact assessment.
There were speakers from both academia and the civil service, including the former President of the British Academy, Sir Adam Roberts, and Fellow of the Institute for Government, Dr Catherine Haddon. The discussions focused on how policy relevance can be used as one possible measure of research impact. The speakers really stressed how government ideas become much more powerful when backed by recognised research, so civil servants and Ministers are very keen to develop better links with academics.
Although the event was aimed at Arts, Humanities and Social Science researchers, most of the learning points are transferable to other disciplines so I’ve pulled together my Top 10 Tips on how to influence public policy from the day:
1. Start now!
Opportunities to engage in government policy development are limited so you need to get in there very early. Be aware that it’s very hard to get Government to accept evidence that says their idea isn’t going to work.
2. Build your relationships
Good relationships with the policy teams and Special Advisors in Government are therefore essential, and you should also think about who else influences policy in your area, e.g. special interest groups, policy communities (highly connected individuals and advocacy coalitions/collaborations) and downward links. You need to build a foundation of support at all levels of Government, not just Ministerial. Don’t always expect immediate pay off though – sometimes it’s about building contacts and networks for future activity.
3. Raise your personal profile
Check your internet visibility – most policy analysts in Government will only get as far as the first two pages on Google. If you’re not on there, they won’t be interested in talking to you. Also boost your use of social media – institutional blogging is the way forward! Try and get on the management committees of NGOs and voluntary bodies, because from that stems the opportunity to influence via research.
4. Get ready for the big one…
Policy influencing and impact doesn’t have to start with a publication, and forget any previously hold notions that policy making is in any way structured or logical! The key thing is to be prepared. Work out how to identify the policy windows (where a government policy idea coincides with a political trend and an emerging problem to bring the topic centre stage) and be ready to bring them solutions, not problems. However, don’t be afraid to have a strong view or say, “you might want to think about xyz if you pursue that policy”.
5. …but don’t wait to be asked
While you’re waiting for those policy windows do look around for other opportunities to engage through consultations, expert advice, subject-relevant campaigns, tenders for Government-commissioned research, and research for the European bodies. Let me know if this is an area that you want to explore and I’ll send you some details of where to look.
6. Use Select Committees
Oral evidence has the highest status. Written submissions are rarely referred to, but they get you in the door for an opportunity to give oral evidence. Get to know the Clerks and Special Advisors to the Select Committees (ask the Clerk who the relevant Special Advisor is) – because if they don’t know you, you won’t get invited to give evidence.
7. Work on your communications
Any evidence for policy development needs to be very concise – max of one page. It’s also good to develop a strap-line and get your elevator pitch sorted for policy influencing and media appearances. Importing ideas from abroad can establish authority of an idea, and politicians love international case studies so use them where possible in your evidence. Consider developing a bank of applications and a basic CV for research that you can then use as a template for bids into government research – otherwise there is no way you’ll be able to respond within the specified timelines. Be aware that anything you say when influencing policy could be published, so it’s worth putting in writing what you said to avoid any ambiguity.
8. Think about the people dimension
History is contextual and subjective – you need to understand people’s perspective of the history of a topic before you can influence their thinking and therefore policy development. Always put the people you are fighting for at the centre of any campaigns and policy influencing that you do – personal stories are always powerful.
9. Policy work is a great development opportunity
Use the experience you gained from writing your REF impact case study to make your future research more societally-relevant. Undertake as many public talks as possible to help you develop your positions and opinions to feed into policy development.
10. Don’t give up!
Perhaps most importantly, all the speakers said that demonstrating policy relevance can be tortuous and long-winded, but was well worth it in the end – so don’t give up!
If you’d like to find out more the following resources might be of interest:
- The slides from the SHARE event provide some more background and detail to the Top 10 Tips.
- The AHRC ‘Guidance on planning and demonstrating effective policy engagement’ is a really good introduction to influencing public policy.
- The LSE Impact blog is an excellent example of institutional blogging at another University.
- AHRC and the Institute for Government offer a 3 day course on government engagement (other dates should be available soon).
- The Institute for Government provides additional advice and support for researchers interested in policy and political engagement.