Some tips for academics who want to influence government

I recently attended a fantastic course at the Institute for Government, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, called ‘Engaging with Government’. A range of brilliant speakers came to share their expertise and ‘insider’ knowledge with us, including Matthew Taylor, Wayne Martin, Stephen Aldridge, Phillippa Helme, James Stringer, Emma Norris, Jane Tinkler, Catherine Haddon, and Ian Lyne, as well as Institute for Government bods Jill Rutter, Nadine Smith and its founder, David Halpern.  I learned more about government in the first five minutes than in my entire 33 years on this planet.

We were told a lot about how government and policy making works, both in theory and practice.  In my naivety, some of it was quite a shock to me, especially in relation to the sometimes whimsical nature of policy making and department creation; see the Institute for Government’s 2010 report ‘Making and Breaking Whitehall Departments’ for a guide to this. The apparent lack of credibility of qualitative and arts-based data as ‘evidence’ was also somewhat depressing for me, as a qualitative social scientist doing arts and humanities research (I’ve written a more ‘ranty’ blog about this which I’m wondering whether or not to publish).  But, despite this, I was heartened by the many and varied routes through which my research might influence policy making.  I’ve listed some of the most helpful tips below:

  1. Don’t diagnose a problem if there is no possible solution – whilst we might do a fantastic piece of research gathering some really meaningful and in-depth data about the issues and problems facing a particular group, community, place or institution, if there is no possible policy solution then some say there is little point wasting our time trying to get government to listen.
  2. Be persistent – it took the RSA six years to have an impact on pensions policy; sometimes it is simply not the right time for your research to have an influence, even if what you have done is excellent. Wait a few months, try a different group/committee/civil servant, re-package your stuff differently. The ‘window of opportunity’ model of policy influence dictates that the streams of policy, problems and politics have to converge before a ‘window’ can open, but it is at that point that research can be very influential.
  3. Build your networks – linked to the previous point, taking time to build relationships with the key people, groups and organisations that will help you to have influence is essential, because then once your ‘window of opportunity’ opens, you are connected enough to take full advantage of it.
  4. Think widely about how you can have influence – this is linked to the previous point. Providing ‘evidence’ is only one way of research having an influence on policy. I have come to the conclusion that the perception of evidence is very narrow indeed in the world of government; most people simply discount qualitative research as anecdotal or ‘nice for a bit of context’ (and that is before you even start talking about the possibility that the arts and humanities might serve as forms of evidence!). But as Emma Norris points out, it’s not all about providing evidence. Maybe your research could have an influence on shaping narratives of policy issues, over time.  Wayne Martin also pointed out that it’s not always the cutting edge research that has an impact.
  5. Listen to the people you want to influence – We’ve worked hard on our research and we want to tell the world what we found out, and because of this we can sometimes be too much in ‘broadcast’ mode and not enough in ‘listen’ mode.  By listening to the people we do end up talking to in government, we’re more likely to say something they think is relevant and worth listening to.  If you are lucky enough to get half an hour with a person you want to influence, don’t spend all of that time talking; ask about their current priorities first.  Empathy and sensitivity to current bonds and conflicts between people in government can also help towards knowing who might be the right person to approach.
  6. Work with local government – if something works on a local level, central government is likely to notice. With the extent of cuts in local authorities, now is the time for innovation and working differently, and the feedback loops are shorter in local government.
  7. Be on top of the policy process and anticipate opportunities – what does the delivery landscape look like for your policy area? Who are the key influencers? When are the next upcoming debates? Which select committees is your research relevant to and can you set up an email alert for it? See for information on select committees. Which bills are being drafted and discussed? If you know the answers to these questions then you can identify a plan of action. See for information on draft bills.
  8. Be ready to act fasthave short, punchy articles prepared on various different aspects of your findings that you think might crop up at some point. For example, part of our AHRC project is about community responses to how certain places are portrayed in the media. I should really write up some of our emerging findings into a short report that could be sent off at the drop of a hat if I hear that this is being discussed by policy makers or politicians. I got the impression that snippets are fine: one headline and then a few key points, preferably presented with nice (info)graphics with boxes and what not. This helps to position yourself as a “useful conduit”, as Wayne Martin suggested to us.
  9. Be brave – Philippa Helme encouraged us to be brave about giving oral evidence at the scrutiny stage of policy making. She said that good communicators with something interesting to say at the right time are likely to get picked. Evidence does need to be tailored to whichever committee you are speaking to, and oral evidence is more likely to have influence than written evidence, which just gets put on the website.

The course was very London-centric and there was no information about devolved policy contexts. So the tips are relevant to the UK government. I met two other researchers from Welsh universities and we have decided to put together a funding proposal for a series of policy networking / training events focusing on the Welsh Government and the Assembly. If you are interested in being involved in this, let me know!


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