A version of this guest article was originally presented by Iain Mansfield at the HEPI Partner Policy Briefing Day.
“I can call up 50 academics who will tell me how to design the perfect pension system, but I can’t find any who can tell me how to improve the one we have now.” – New Labour minister
Like all such statements, the words aren’t literally true, yet successfully convey an important message. There is too often a disconnect between the language spoken by academics and that spoken by policy makers, a disconnect which can make it harder for the world-class research taking place in our universities to influence policy.
As Paul Johnson, Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, wrote in the Times earlier this year, “Why do organisations like the IFS exist at all,” when “there are thousands of economists and many thousands of other social scientists employed by UK universities?” The answer, as he goes on to say, is that “there remains a yawning chasm between the work of most academic social scientists and the work of government” and so there is a room for organisations, such as the IFS – or, indeed, HEPI – to bridge that divide.
Most policy makers, whether civil servants and politicians, really do want evidence. And think-tanks speak our language, the best of them combining world class policy insights – both their own and from the wider literature – with an understanding of the political and policy pressures that form part of government policy making. So how can university researchers learn from this, to allow their research to have a greater impact on policy making, without diminishing its world-class nature?
Push and Pull Barriers
Structural and cultural issues, on both sides, create barriers even where there is great willingness to engage.
Academics are sometimes surprised to learn that civil servants don’t have access to peer reviewed journals. Even if they did, reading original academic literature is not part of the broader culture: the typical civil servant would be far more likely to read the latest report by HEPI, the IFS or the Sutton Trust. This combines with a broader lack of understanding of the academic landscape. Of the hundreds of a researchers in a field, who are really the leading experts?
Because the policy cycle is complex, there are times when government will be very open to new ideas and evidence, and others when parliamentary arithmetic or broader politics means it is focused on delivery – an idea that arrives at the wrong time is unlikely to get traction. And policy makers can be prone to looking for the silver bullet, the magic answer that a minister can announce in a forthcoming speech, whereas research often gives much more complex answers.
From the academic side, influencing policy is an entirely separate skill from carrying out research – and one individual may not be talented or have experience at both. This can be compounded by the fact that, in a ‘publish or perish’ culture, influencing policy may not be seen as a priority, reducing the opportunity for younger researchers to develop these skills.
More broadly, while officials can underestimate the complexity of research, too often academics underestimate the complexity of policy making, presenting solutions devoid of any understanding of the broader fiscal, societal or political pressures essential to implementation. There can also be a certain naivety at influencing, thinking that if research is clearly right, presenting it once to a minister or senior official will be enough. In reality, influencing requires long, hard graft to win over not just a single individual, but the broader ecosystem of advisers, politicians, select committees, think tanks and pressure groups that help determine which policies do and don’t get taken forward.
There is no unique way to have impact, but one way to think about the process is the following:
- Identify: Who needs to know about your research? Which civil servants, politicians, MPs, select committees, think tanks? Who is already interested in the subject? Is there public concern? A burning platform? Are there any broader policy initiatives – e.g. Industrial Strategy, Northern Powerhouse – that it could be linked to?
- Engage: Find the initial connection. Get a meeting with the minister/civil servants/MPs. Run a parliamentary briefing event. Invite an official to speak at a conference. Respond to government consultations. Have a policy blog to discuss your research and comment on relevant topical issues. Make sure your media engagement is effective – whether that’s press releases, interviews or social media.
- Embed: Make yourself indispensable. Build strong personal relationships with officials at all levels. Run a regular series of engagements to which officials, ministers, parliamentarians and think tanks are invited. Provide the secretariat for an All-Party-Parliamentary-Group. Offer to lend a PhD student or post-doc to the relevant government department at a busy time for them (e.g. a consultation period). Regularly comment on government announcements in your research area and make sure the department and press are aware. Bid to carry our government sponsored research.
- Impact: What impact are you aiming for? Greater awareness? A change in public attitudes? Better targeted policies? New laws / regulations? A change to existing regulations? Targeted investment or research programmes? Knowing your goal will give you a greater chance of succeeding.
One Effective Operating Model: The Policy Centre
Although some academics are capable of single-handedly producing world-class research and having an impact on policy, this is relatively rare. ‘Hire Anna Vignoles’ is good advice, but not very generalisable. So what can a university do structurally to ensure that influencing with impact can occur systematically?
One effective option is to establish a policy centre, such as the Centre for Competition Policy at UEA or the UK Trade Policy Observatory at Sussex. Both are highly effective examples that demonstrate how researchers can dramatically increase its influence within government.
Centres such as these can establish a clear and recognisable brand to which research outputs, policy papers and events can be aligned. Just as policy makers look for the next think tank report, they will look for the next output from the centre. The director of such a centre can support this by establishing long-term relationships with (often transient) officials, MPs, and other policy makers, providing a familiar face and reliable source of policy help. Research outputs rarely fit perfectly into policy-shaped holes – but as a centre, it’s much easier to field an academic whose research does address the problem at hand.
Internally, centres provide a setting where policy engagement and influencing is genuinely valued. This enables early-career academics can get involved and learn the necessary skills and provides a management framework in which policy impact can be appropriately recognised. It allows division of labour: while the centre as a whole may have a clear mandate to influence policy: individual academics within it can take a greater or lesser role in that endeavour and skilled administrative staff can be appointed to support engagement and influencing activities. Overall, a centre can be an efficient way of mobilising research that enables many of the influencing activities set out above.
I am sure there will be a continued role for think-tanks such as HEPI and the IFS for many years to come. But if more of the world-class research taking place in universities can have a greater impact on policy, we will all be better off.