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How should the higher education sector seek to persuade our new Ministers?

  • 19 February 2020
  • By Nick Hillman

As we take stock of the Whitehall reshuffle and get to know the new Ministers responsible for the higher education sector, it seems like a good moment to think afresh about how to persuade policymakers most effectively.

There is a lot of good advice on this issue available from recent Whitehall players, like Diana Beech and Iain Mansfield – and I have written about it before, including here and here for the Times Higher. In addition, Mark Leach’s ‘lobbying rules to live by’, based on his time in Westminster, is very good.

But here are six issues that I wish I had known before I got to experience Whitehall from the inside. They may seem obvious but any Whitehall insider will tell you how often they are not followed…

  1. Don’t use a scattergun approach towards civil servants: Most policymakers are far more accessible than is often supposed but there is no point contacting officials who are likely to have little or nothing to do with your area. It wastes your time and theirs. Instead, find the one most relevant civil servant and email them offering to meet at a time and place of their choosing. Don’t be offended if they offer you the chance to meet someone else from their team instead – sometimes more junior staff are the real experts on a particular area.
  2. Learn to accept churn: It’s a pain that officials – and ministers – turn over so quickly. But it’s also an opportunity as you get a new slate. If you’ve failed to persuade a civil servant of your case or just failed to get them sufficiently interested in what you do, their successor might be more amenable and persuadable and looking for new insights.
  3. Show your wares: If you’ve got something interesting to show off, invite the most relevant politician or civil servant to come and see it. Don’t offer them the chance to sit in a room for four hours being spoken at about the project instead. It’s not a good use of their time and it suggests you’re not sure which part of your messaging they would most benefit from hearing (and there’s fewer opportunities for good photo ops).
  4. Don’t try to deliver joined-up government yourself: Don’t expect to get lots of different government interests in a room together. I regularly attend events where the organisers express annoyance or regret that they have been unable to get lots of different government departments together (or just lots of different people from one department) in the same room. That tends not to happen for two (good) reasons: government is so busy that if one department or team has an event covered, others won’t generally feel the need to turn up; plus, if there is any chance of a heated discussion occurring between two departments on an issue, they are not going to have it out in front of outsiders.
  5. Target your message: Use the outlets that policymakers are actually likely to see and hear, like newspapers, blogs, think tanks and broadcast media. Remember that civil servants and politicians do not have access to every sort of output (and wouldn’t have time to read everything even if they did). They are unlikely to stumble across things in academic journals, especially if they are behind paywalls, unless it is brought to their direct attention.
  6. Use different sorts of information: Policymakers are not only interested in numbers or stories; they are interested in both. So don’t put all your effort into having the most perfect set of numbers in the world if this ends up being the only information you’ve gathered and don’t spend all your time just getting anecdotal evidence – after all, the plural of anecdote is not evidence. But do mix the quantitative with the qualitative to increase your impact.

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