Longitudinal evidence has potentially invaluable applications in policy. But effective communication between researchers and policymakers can be a challenge. In this blog, Harry Aagaard Evans of NHS England and Improvement gives his top tips for researchers looking to engage with the policy community.
Sometimes it can feel like researchers and policymakers live in different worlds; ships in the night, never to meet. The reality is far more complex. Whether it be in the articles that spark new policy announcements or the policy that needs honing through evaluation, academia and policymaking are entwined.
As a recovering researcher, and current policymaker, I’ve seen both sides of this relationship. Let’s start with the researcher. Creative, focused and robust, their role is to generate high quality evidence and contribute to the sum total of human knowledge. No small ask. So no wonder they are time-poor and focused on publications.
The policymaker on the other hand has decisions to make. These decisions have constraints that include finances, logistics and what is within their sphere of influence. Like the researcher, they are time-poor and focused on delivery.
These are two stereotypes – but each has its own truth. Fundamentally though the researcher and the policymaker are similar. Policymakers have questions that need answers; researchers have answers that need more questions.
In the past, policy and research have been seen as two separate communities, with few overlaps in their language, behaviour and contact. Newer research has begun to question this theory. Policymakers are a diverse mix of people, with a range of attitudes and behaviours to incorporating research into their work.
As a researcher, thinking about policymakers as a homogenous group made life simpler. However, moving to NHS England and Improvement, I learned that everyone has their own way of incorporating evidence into their work. Here are a few different considerations about how different policymakers like to keep updated on research.
Research creates ripples, not waves – busy day jobs keep people from staying up-to-date on the hottest new journal articles and research reports. Important research can take time to percolate. Speeding this up from the outside can be tricky, but Twitter is a useful way of sending out more ripples. Finding policymakers on Twitter who are interested in a broad area of research can be useful.
Reading articles is hard, but a conversation is easy – as counterintuitive as it might seem, some policymakers prefer a conversation about new research than to ringfence time to read up. When I’m busy, I rely on researchers to be honest about the drawbacks of the evidence without me needing an in-depth knowledge of different methods.
What do I need to know? In a line, in a paragraph and in a link – some policymakers keep in regular touch with researchers about upcoming research. This can take different forms, but a quick email can be sufficient. The best approach I have heard is a researcher who would email relevant findings to policymakers in a single line. In a paragraph. And then link to the article. This reflects the fact that policymakers don’t need to read every line of an article for it to inform their work.
I am not just my job title – while many people may be interested in research relevant to their day job, there are others who are interested more broadly. Policymakers will read reports from think tanks just to keep up to date across a breadth of policy areas. Editorials, systematic reviews and other high-level pieces of work can be of interest to me, even if they are not relevant to my current job. Talk to policymakers about the work they might be interested in, and let them filter what they do and don’t read (perhaps using other tips presented here). Keeping research findings high-level and general can help build an enduring relationship that means if someone changes role, they are still able to engage with your work.
Of course this is all easy to say, but there are lots of reasons why it is hard for a researcher to change policy. Policymakers themselves should make it their business to discuss and broaden their knowledge of evidence. However, researchers need to consider the diversity of policymakers out there – who digest their research in different ways. Researchers using cohort and longitudinal studies consistently generate evidence that policymakers need to hear. However, there are a multitude of people involved in designing and delivering even a single policy. Each one of them has certain things they control, and needs engaging in a way that works for them.
CLOSER is working to improve the lines of communication between researchers and policymakers, and maximise the impact of longitudinal research on policy.
Harry Aagaard Evans is Senior Programme Manager at NHS England and Improvement, and a member of the CLOSER Advisory Committee. Follow him at @HarryAEvans.