This guest blog has been written in a personal capacity by Dr Diana Beech (Head of Government Affairs at the University of Warwick).
Diana was Policy Adviser for higher education to various Ministers for Universities and Science (Sam Gyimah, Jo Johnson and Chris Skidmore – twice!), a role she fulfilled after a stint as HEPI’s first ever Director of Policy and Advocacy.
Over the past few months, I have written extensively about what it has been like to work as a Policy Adviser for numerous Universities and Science Ministers:
- I have given people an insight into what the job entails;
- I have shared my top ten tips on how the sector can gain the attention of officials; and
- I have even written a ‘Day One’ briefing note for the new Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan, listing the key points I want her to know about UK higher education from the outset.
But, now that recess is over and politicians will be keen to get the show back on the road, I also want to share a new set of tips – and those are to do with hosting officials on future visits.
During my time in Private Office, I got to accompany previous ministers on visits to well over sixty different universities and their industrial R&D partners across the UK and Europe. So, I have seen first-hand some excellent examples of visit-planning, but also some instances where things could perhaps have run a little bit better. That’s why I’ve put together the following 10 tips for universities and research institutes planning to host a minister or MP at some point in the future to ensure both sides get the best out of the opportunity:
- Put on a variety show: On an average day in the office, a Minister’s diary is crammed full with back-to-back meetings in Whitehall. That’s why many politicians relish the chance to get out and about and see something different. The worst thing you can do, therefore, is trap your visitor in a yet another meeting room for a few hours and subject them to an unbroken series of presentations, meetings and discussions. Instead, make sure the visit is varied and that sit-down meetings are interspersed with hands-on activities or campus walkabouts. Remember, the average human attention span is in the region of just 20 minutes, and even politicians aren’t superhuman!
- Make time for a ‘meet and greet’: In his blog last week, Nick Hillman explained how junior officials may be the best people to talk to about policy, as they are the ‘real’ experts in their respective areas. The same is true in universities and research institutes. While Vice-Chancellors or Chief Executives may be able to provide a good overview of their organisations, politicians will get much more out of speaking to students about their own experiences or to scientists about their research. So, it is important to allow time for your guests to meet those working at the heart of your institution, not just those at the top of your institution.
- Showcase your USP: When politicians go on a visit, they want to see something they would not see elsewhere. MPs and Ministers generally use visits to collect anecdotes on which to draw in parliamentary questions or speeches. So, if you show them something that is unique to you, there is a high chance it will stick in their memory and your institution will be name-checked on an appropriate occasion in the future.
- Save the moans for another day: Another no-no you should avoid during a visit from an MP or minister is to take up precious time complaining about current policy. This is a sure-fire way to leave your visitor with a negative impression about your institution. That’s not to say you shouldn’t talk to politicians about misgivings when you get the chance, but it is definitely better to do this by securing a meeting at their office or going through your relevant mission group or representative body (if applicable).
- Don’t overlook the entourage: Politicians rarely travel alone. Ministers will always go on visits with at least one private secretary in tow and perhaps an additional adviser and official as well. MPs, too, may be accompanied by researchers, communications assistants or political advisers. Use these additional bodies wisely. Officials can take more sensitive messages back to Whitehall, as well as provide a useful point of contact for follow-up conversations.
- Factor in comfort breaks: This one may seem obvious but is often overlooked by teams wishing to get the most out of a politician’s visit. It is easy to forget that by the time a minister or MP reaches you, they have likely been travelling for some time. For ministers and their teams coming from London, it can often take over an hour to get across the city, even before getting on the train or motorway. So, don’t assume your visitors will be ready to jump into five hours straight of planned activities. Offer them an initial comfort break when they arrive and put away the cameras for five minutes. That way, you might stand a better chance of getting some genuine smiles and engagement later!
- Provide a green room: If you are lucky enough to secure a politician for an all-day visit, then think about offering them and their wider team a private space where they can leave their bags or simply have a coffee away from the crowds and cameras. For ministers in particular, work still goes on in Whitehall while they are out the office, so it is likely that private secretaries will appreciate some ‘down time’ with their minister to clear quotes or get sign-off on official papers.
- Add a personal touch: Although it is not always easy, it is worth taking some time to discover what your visiting politician’s interests are before they arrive and tailor your agenda accordingly to win some extra brownie points. (Well done to all those institutions who rolled out their Tudor historians for visits from the previous Universities Minister!) Same goes for dietary preferences if hosting a politician for a meal. Take time to find out their likes and dislikes, not just the usual dietary requirements.
- Prepare tailored take-away materials: Since time is always tight during visits, it is no surprise that institutions are keen to send their guests home with tonnes of reading material afterwards. Yet, for ministers and their teams in particular, the likelihood is that they just won’t have the time to plough through thick prospectuses, glossy marketing brochures or academic reports. The best take-away materials you could give them are those that have been prepared especially for the visit. These should be short, snappy and concise, perhaps contain a summary of the main things seen on the visit, and include links for further information.
- Finally, think again about that VR headset: To finish on a light-hearted point, I have to inform you that you are not the only one to think it would be fun to put a virtual reality (VR) headset on your visitor! Although it is undoubtedly inspiring for ministers and MPs to see the new possibilities that VR brings to research – be it in refining healthcare or bringing history to life – VR headsets are now a feature of most university and science visits, so use them wisely. Plus, being pictured with a funny contraption on their heads is not exactly the photo opportunity most politicians are hoping for!