ARCC network recently hosted a webinar for early career researchers with Tom Sutton of the Cabinet Office, talking about the challenges of bringing research findings to a policy audience.
Tom’s theme was ‘Impact and Excellence’ – objectives that are shared by both policy-makers and by researchers. Government advocates a process of open policy-making, which means officials engaging with academic experts (and others) to get a broad picture of a topic, and by doing so, being able to provide the very best advice to ministers and other decision-makers.
Open policy-making is a fantastic ambition, but officials face many challenges. A researcher trying to make sure their outputs find a good home will have to battle an official’s limited resources, competing priorities and, maybe, a lack of expert knowledge.
So, how do you become the go-to researcher when a tricky question lands on the policy-makers’ desk? We identified five top tips.
- Identify the right people to speak to. Find out who you really need to engage. You may already have good contacts in government, or perhaps you’ll need to work with other colleagues or networks (like ARCC) that already have established relationships with government officials.
- Be open to a range of potential contacts. You may need to cast a broader net than you first think. It’s not always the most obvious government departments or individuals, so check the policy priorities of a number of related departments and government bodies. And it doesn’t have to mean going to the most senior individual – other staff may have a more detailed understanding of your area of research, and be better-placed to make use of it.
- Keep it simple and jargon-free! It’s an obvious point, but acronyms and specialist terms rarely travel well. Researchers and policy-makers both seek comfort in their own sets of jargon, but it’s a barrier to understanding and may actively promote confusion. Keep your language straightforward, and relate it to issues and topics your chosen policy-maker is going to be familiar with.
- Edit ruthlessly. You’ll have to provide short and easily-understood briefings to engage your audience. No academic papers, no cut-and-paste abstracts, but a single page summary or PowerPoint slide.
- Be persistent. Don’t assume that the first person you approach will say ‘yes’ to your request for a meeting or ‘phone call. It’s great when that happens, but if it doesn’t, check if they can refer you to someone who would be interested/has time, investigate alternative contacts, and make more links in your own networks or when you get out to meetings and conferences.
In as useful question-and-answer session, Tom offered further insights. You’ll probably have 30 minutes maximum to talk you an official either over the ‘phone or face to face, at least initially. So make the best use of it. Don’t use this time to try to pitch for funding (they won’t have any to give you, and you are meant to be briefing them). You don’t have to have to be senior or eminent to get heard – being approachable, making your research accessible and understanding how the research can make the policy-makers’ life easier are all more important than being a big name.
It was heartening to hear that researchers and their findings are welcome in Westminster, but sadly there’s no single route to the right person. Researchers will have to add a significant strand of stakeholder engagement to their skill set in future.