Engaging with Policy-Makers: Taking a Strategic Approach

Engaging with Policy-Makers: Taking a Strategic Approach

In this week’s post, PaCCS champion Dr Tristram Riley-Smith shares his strategies for effectively engaging with policy-makers. 

It has long been recognised that effective engagement between academics and policy makers is essential to the delivery of informed, evidence-based, world-class policy making – and indeed to the success of often hard-pressed teams seeking to put policy into practice. However, in 2008 a report was produced for the UK Government suggested that academics and policy-makers were struggling to make this relationship work.

Since 2012, I have been working with PaCCS and Cambridge’s Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP) to address this challenge. The focus of my work has been to help researchers working on issues associated with Conflict, Cybersecurity and Transnational Organised Crime. However, along the way I have learnt fundamental lessons that will apply to any researcher, regardless of their discipline or area of interest. I have also had the opportunity to try out a number of practical mechanisms to support knowledge exchange, which compliment the establishment of the PaCCS Communications Strategy for promoting engagement. Knowledge exchange activities that I have tried which may be of interest to you or your organisation include:

  • Champion’s Clinics where researchers come to me seeking help to connect and communicate with Government Departments; this doesn’t just result in introductions – 152 made in 22 months – but I also support the design of short, sharp and focused messages to increase the likelihood that the recipient will pay attention;
  • Placement Schemes, with post-graduate students embedded into Government Departments on three-month projects; this has proved a great way to demonstrate the benefit of engaging with researchers;
  • Policy Workshops where policy-makers are briefed on current research and then discuss the implications and identify follow-up actions; it is important to capture the outputs in Policy Briefings with an emphasis on clarity and brevity of reporting;
  • an Academic Marketplace where researchers seek investors and customers to help them generate innovative products and services;
  • Fellowship Schemes, where officials spend up to a week meeting academics and discussing strategic questions relating to policy and practice; think of this as an exercise in speed-dating.

Throughout my work, I have also encountered a range of cultural and logistical obstacles which hamper effective engagement. These are, for instance, difficulties in establishing effective communications, caused by problems with:

  • “Docking”: it is a challenge to make connections in the first place – finding out who does what “on the other side”, and how to reach them isn’t easy; academics are particularly frustrated by the struggle required to build and maintain a relationship with relevant contacts and the even bigger struggle to gain access to relevant data that is needed to conduct successful research;
  • “Translation”: it is difficult to understand the other side: Government and Academia do not share the same lexicon: they have developed their own short-hand and sub-texts to optimise internal communications; in fact, language barriers exist within these worlds:

The Research Councils’ decision to create a dedicated function – a PaCCS Impact Champion –played a significant part in allowing me to help PaCCS researchers to overcome these communications challenges, promoting trust and building partnerships. The job combines the roles of Advocate, Ambassador, Bridge, Broker, Mentor and Translator. I had the benefit, as a former Public Servant, of starting with an extensive network of trusted and trusting contacts working within Government. But the “half-life” of a network is surprisingly short (especially when policy-makers are rapidly rotated from one job to another). Part of a broker’s weekly grind is to keep that network alive and refreshed.

The good news is that I am going to be continuing in my role until the end of 2021. But what can you do to engage with policy-makers if an Impact Champion isn’t “on-tap”? Here are a few thoughts:

These strategies should help you in your efforts to connect with those in policy-making spaces. As you do so, remember to think about your messaging. It is vitally important to frame any “pitch” to policy-makers in terms of their interests not yours; no matter how brilliant or erudite you may be, yoy won’t achieve traction unless – in a few succinct bullet-points – you can persuade the policy-maker that your research can make a difference to his or her life; get into their shoes and see the world through their lens before crafting your approach.