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Engaging with policymakers – some tips to help you on your journey…

Blog | | Rob Davies

Have a purpose

267437_7416 SXOne of the most important steps in this process is to be clear about what you want to achieve from the outset. Changing policy or influencing legislation can be difficult, messy and time consuming, so you need to ask yourself what you want to actually achieve through your engagement; for example is it raising the profile of your research or do you want to affect a change in the law. Spend some time thinking about this as it will determine who you engage with, why (and what you want them to do), when, how and what with.

Understand the landscape and how policy is made

This is about researching the policy landscape (issues and people) before engaging. You need to understand what are the ‘hot topics’ and also the potential areas of focus in the future, who are the key players and decision makers in your chosen area of policy.  You also need a working knowledge of how government and parliament work. Policymaking tends to be an iterative not linear process, but there are a number of organisations and resources, including from the Institute for Government and Parliament’s Outreach Team, that can help inform and guide you through what is often an opaque and messy process.

Be aware of the potential mismatch between academic and policy agendas and timelines – your research will take, months, years, sometimes decades but policymakers work to a very different timescale, often needing evidence in a matter of weeks and not necessarily when you have something to contribute (for example, when you’re still out in the field).  And whilst a change to a law might be blindingly obvious, if the political will is not there and legislative time not available then it will be difficult to achieve this. Churn is also a factor to consider as officials often move around departments and often (understandably) see the world through an operational lens.

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Trust is key to influencing policy – many argue that proximity (‘critical proximity’) is required to build trust. This can be a challenge if you are physically located a long way from Parliament, London and the South East (where many of the policymakers are based) but there are ways to overcome this, including through having a strong presence on relevant social media channels and capitalising on opportunities as they emerge. Policy events are now often live-streamed and have dedicated Twitter hashtags, allowing you to follow and engage with the debate regardless of your location.

Mind your language!

Be mindful of the language you use and remember that policymakers tend to look for actionable advice so “more research is needed” is not a helpful answer when a decision needs to be made! Some researchers do not see it as their role to identify policy implications or recommendations, but that is exactly what policymakers are after, so if you go that one step further you are more likely to have an impact.

Try to produce bespoke products for the intended audience – concise, accessible and clear briefing notes are essential tools when trying to influence people who don’t have a lot of time to engage with lengthy, technical research papers, which can often be hidden behind paywalls.

Be patient

As with many things in life, timing is key. Building trust takes time and your research may simply not be relevant to the current policy agenda. In simple terms, political party manifesto pledges progress into Queen’s speeches, then to Green Papers, then to White Papers and, finally, become law – this all takes time and many different factors can influence and sometimes obstruct this process, which can prove frustrating at times.  Keep at it as you never know when that golden opportunity will appear, and when it does you need to be ready to take advantage of it.

Actively participate (and engage with purpose)

Engagement is key, especially when it comes to building trust. It is crucial to invest time and energy into building relationships and networks. Cultivate your Twitter presence – identify, follow and engage with the policymakers you want to influence. Attend free events run by All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) and other relevant organisations – live tweet the proceedings, talk to people at the event, and ask questions in the Q&A. Blog about it and the relevance to your research afterwards.

Capitalise on opportunities, for example a relevant debate happening in Parliament or media story that could act as a platform for further engagement with your target audience(s). This blog about how research gets into Parliament is a good summary of the various official routes available to researchers. The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) runs several fellowship schemes with Research Councils, learned societies and charities to enable researchers at all career stages to spend time working in Parliament. Get involved, engage with purpose and, most of all, enjoy the journey.

Rob Davies is Public Affairs Manager for CLOSER, the UK longitudinal studies consortium funded by the ESRC and Medical Research Council (MRC). His role is to raise awareness of longitudinal studies among policymakers and parliamentarians and help ensure longitudinal evidence influences policy development. Based on his two decades of experience in communications, public affairs and stakeholder management, Rob shares some practical advice and tips for engaging with policymakers.

You can follow Rob on Twitter @r0bdavies.

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This blog was originally posted on the ESRC blog.