Engaging with policy makers can be an effective pathway to impact. Policy makers often have the influence and opportunity to use your research evidence to alter or develop policies, and have a mandate to work with and listen to the research community.
What is policy?
A policy is ‘a plan, course of action, or set of regulations adopted by government, businesses, or other institutions designed to influence and determine decisions or procedures’ (UK Department for International Development, 2005).
Who are policy makers?
'Policy maker' is a broad terms that covers all the people resposible for formulating or amending policy. At a national level in the UK this includes Ministers, their advisers, civil servants, officially appointed Chief Scientific Advisers, Parliamentary Committee members, MPs, Lords, and all of their advisory staff. In certain policy areas it also includes the staff of government agencies, such as Natural England, who have expert knowledge in a particular area and tend to play a role in informing the policy making process.
Policy makers tend to be approached by a large number of people hoping to influence their policies, from lobbyists and interest groups, to constitutents or academics. They are often time-poor, and tend to be generalists, but it is important not to underestimate their skills and experience, particularly when it comes to understanding complex issues and assimilating knowledge.
How does the policy making process work?
The policy process is often represented as a cycle. For example, the Treasury Department's Green Book uses the following stages to understand the policy making cycle:
- Rationale - a rationale is developed
- Objectives - objectives are set
- Appraisal - options are appraised
- Monitoring - effects are monitored
- Evaluation - results are evaluated
- Feedback - evaluation results are fed back into the cycle
However, the Institute for Government suggests that policy making in the real world tends to operate on a less rational, more opportunistic basis.
- Policy doesn't tend to take place in distinct stages as suggested above.
- Policy makers are influenced by a range of different factors that are not captured in this simple cycle, including budget restrictions, public opinion, political parties, values and ideology, mass media, interest groups, events, social and economic conditions, and even...research.
- The effects of policies are often indirect, diffuse, and take time to appear. Given the complexity of the problems government deals with, it may be unlikely that a policy will produce effects that are measurable and attributable.
So, although it is simplistic to suggest that there are natural 'stages' at which researchers can input evidence into the policy making process, there are some natural entry points, and some useful tips and techniques when working with policy makers.
What role does research and evidence play in policy making?
Since 1999 the government has been trying to encourgage better use of evidence in policy making, initially focusing on the supply side, looking at how to improve the timeliness and relevance of research evidence, but increasingly a consensus is developing that demand barriers, such as the incentives and culture of civil servants and politicians can be more significant barriers to better use of evidence.
Bearing in mind the complexity of the policy making process and the number of different groups involved, it can seem like an impossible task to work with policy makers to have an impact. However, there are always windows of opportunity and strategies that can be employed to engage with policy makers, and improve your chances of having an impact.
It's best to begin planning this before a project even begins. However, even at the end of a project, you can still plan effective ways of bringing your message to people who can make a difference.
Before you engage with policy makers, you need to think about:
- WHAT is your key message with relevance for policy? If you are in the planning stage of a project, you won’t know in advance what your findings will be, but you will likely have some idea where your work will lead.
- WHY is this important for policy? You need to be able to sum this up in a few sentences - for yourself and others. Listen to the needs of policy makers, how can your research help them to achieve the best policy decisions, or to persuade their colleagues? Make sure you know what you want to achieve - what exactly do you want policy makers to do?
- WHO has the power to make a difference? Identify key individuals and groups who make, implement or influence relevant policy. They might be politicians, civil servants, professionals or business people. What about thinktanks, NGOs, charities, and international governance organisations? Start to build relationships as early as possible.
- WHEN to engage? The most effective stakeholder engagements are ‘upstream’, with dialogue throughout the project lifecycle beginning at the planning stage. Policy makers and other stakeholders might have useful knowledge or suggestions that can help to shape your research and improve your impact.
- WHERE to engage? Politicians, civil servants and lobbyists are busy people and there will be others competing for their ear. Not all have the flexibility or budget to travel to events away from their place of work, even if they have the time and inclination. Go to your policy audience (for example, in London or Brussels), and build funding for this into your project budget.
- HOW to engage? If your project is significant, it may warrant a full-scale meeting of policy makers and professionals. A workshop format is particularly suitable for engaging stakeholders during the lifecycle of a project. At the end of a project, a press release, policy brief or report may be appropriate. Online media (e.g., Twitter) can be a powerful way to reach certain policy communities. Try to combine the two approaches. Leave short written briefs for policy makers to read after meetings, and follow up the dissemination of written material with personal contact.
Two of the most common ways of engaging with policymakers are via meetings (large or small) and written policy briefs. Here are some practical tips for these two methods:
Meetings and workshops
If you want to have a successful meeting with policy makers and other stakeholders, you need to get a sense of the kind of event most appropriate both to your work and your target audience. To present findings, a short briefing or lunchtime seminar may be best. To explore questions in more depth, consider a slightly longer workshop. Here are some specific tips:
- Find out the ‘downtimes’ for your target audiences. For instance, Friday morning can be a good time for Whitehall, Wednesday night for Scottish Parliament, and before elections for civil servants. Many departments would be happy to host 'brown bag lunches' where academics can come and discuss the implications of their research.
- Short meetings are best - half-day or less. Longer meetings may be possible but need to be worked out ahead of time. If having policy makers or professionals is key to your meeting, find out their schedules before you fix the date, time and length of the meeting. If you hold a day-long meeting, policy makers may only be able to attend for part of the day.
- Focus on your audience’s needs. State the audience benefit for the event in your promotional materials and introductory welcome on the day. Why is this meeting, and your work, important for them? Focus on your key message and whatever background information your audience needs.
- A meeting should be a dialogue. Give stakeholders the chance to react, raise their concerns and provide their perspectives. A workshop format (rather than presentations) provides time for more interaction, although a briefing format may be suitable for shorter, smaller meetings (e.g., lunchtime seminars).
- Be prepared to listen to the perspectives of policy makers and answer questions about the relevance and quality of your evidence. Policy makers are often intelligent consumers of evidence and have wide and varied knowledge, expertise and backgrounds. Their feedback and advice can improve the potential for impact and even the quality of your research.
- Take appropriate printed materials. For a one-on-one meeting, business cards and policy briefs are ideal, as are other short communications materials. If you bring a report or journal article, include a one-page summary on top.
- Your institution or unit may be able to provide support for policy-oriented meetings, or you might consider setting up an event in an existing series, such as the ESRC Public Policy Seminar Series.
There are a number of different terms for a policy brief, including briefing paper or report, briefing note, research briefing, etc. The terminology can be confusing, but the advice here relates to a short (2 A4 sides) document that summarises a project or key research findings and their policy implications.
There are a number of conventions but no hard-and-fast rules for how to write a policy brief. Different organisations and different people have their own styles. If you are new to this form of communication, look at previous examples from your own institution or others, readily available online.
- Your institution may have templates for policy briefings which you should use - contact the communications and marketing team if you’re unsure.
- Allow time for graphic design and printing if you require materials for a particular event. Professional printing is advisable if you have the budget, as your brief will be taken more seriously.
- Aim for 1500 words maximum for a 2-side brief.
- In general, include the following sections in order:
- Key points,
- Policy Recommendations.
- State your aims clearly at the outset (e.g. summarise existing research, report project findings, present your organisation’s position). Spell out clearly and carefully why what you have found is important and different from what was known previously.
- Think about your 'elevator pitch'. How would you persuade a key decision maker in the two minutes it takes to ride the elevator? This should form the basis of your ‘Key Points’ box at the beginning of your brief. Use bullet points for this where possible.
- Focus on your (policy-relevant) findings and recommendations. These should be highlighted, and take up most space. Keep it simple - a short brief is not the place for nuance.
- Policy recommendations should be clear, specific and realistic - but don’t be over-cautious or sit on the fence; embrace your findings and recommendations.
- Include brief references. Author-date, numbered or endnote references are all fine, but avoid footnotes scattered on different pages of the brief. Refer the reader to your own longer reports and other publications. In a 4-page brief about 5-10 references will provide evidence without overwhelming or distracting, or turning the brief into an academic paper.
- Use plain English. Avoid jargon - spell out acronyms and explain technical terms in the text the first time they are used. But stay relatively formal - avoid contractions (isn’t, doesn’t, etc).
- Use a clear purposeful title. This should state exactly what your brief is about.
- Break up the text and highlight key points. Use images, numbers, tables, charts or quotations to draw the eye to key findings. Keep paragraphs short and use sub-headings, bullet points or text boxes to engage the reader.
- Use images to communicate what your brief is about. Avoid leaving large areas of blank space at the end of your brief. Choose the appropriate number of pages for your content and format your text and graphics to fill (or nearly fill) them.
- Proofread carefully! Simple grammatical errors or spelling mistakes can undermine your credibility.
- Post your brief on your organisation’s website and other policy sites. Policy Library reaches an audience of hundreds of thousands, including policy makers and politicians.
The most obvious policy audiences are politicians and civil servants, but other individuals and organisations (global, regional, national and local) influence policy in different ways. These include international governance and advisory bodies, thinktanks, NGOs, business and industry, professionals, trade unions, religious institutions, and community and lobby groups.
Guides to engaging with policy makers
- Impact toolkit (ESRC)
- Communicating research for evidence-based policymaking: A practical guide for researchers in socio-economic sciences and humanities (European Commission)
- Helping researchers become policy entrepreneurs: How to develop engagement strategies for evidence-based policy-making (Overseas Development Institute)
- Evidence and evaluation in policy making (Institute for Government)