It’s been quite some time since I posted anything here, and a lot has happened in the interim. I’ve started an exciting new project and my book has been published with Palgrave.
But I thought I’d relaunch this blog with a piece about the AHRC’s ‘Engaging with Government’ workshop, which I attended the other week. It’s rather apt to begin here because, over the next few years, I’ll be exploring how my research can help shape health policy. And I’ll be using this online space to write about it.
‘Engaging with Government’ is an annual three-day workshop, held at the Institute for Government, which offers ECRs insight into the policymaking process and helps them to develop the policy implications of their research. It’s also useful for building networks between academics and policymakers. Our convenors at the Institute for Government, Jill Rutter and Katie Thorpe, were fantastic. Jill opened the workshop with an incredibly helpful overview of how Whitehall works and how policymaking takes place. Over the next three days we heard from experienced policy advisors, private secretaries and members of think tanks. We got a good sense of what they wanted from engagement with the arts and humanities. The following insights and advice were gathered in conversation with them.
Make friends and influence people.
First things first: identify the people and organisations who can influence decision-making in your field. In health policy, these include professional bodies like the BMA, patient groups, charities, MPs, think tanks and the Number 10 Policy Unit. Then look at who implements policy decisions. For the provision of healthcare, this includes a mix of public and private bodies, such as the NHS Trusts. And, finally, who is affected by policy decisions? Patients, patients’ families, health professionals etc.
Academic timescales ≠ government timescales.
Think carefully about the sources of information these groups draw on when forming and responding to policy, as well as the types of timescales they’re working to. Policymakers work to far tighter deadlines than we do, and don’t have access to the bulk of our scholarship, which lives behind paywalls. They may be willing to engage with academics, but they won’t necessarily know who to contact or what to read.
Minimum disruption. Maximum continuity.
What’s the solution? We academics need to be more proactive. If your work is behind paywalls, boost your online profile (I’ll come back to this later). Get yourself and your research noticed by the right people. But this is also the most difficult step. So, don’t be discouraged by the first rebuff. You need to keep ringing and emailing and writing and ringing and emailing and writing…
To make this first step successfully, you also need to be clear about your role and craft your image accordingly. What kind of expert do you want to be? An advocate for a particular policy position or an impartial advisor who facilitates other people’s decision making? In short, is your role to persuade or inform? If you want to engage successfully in policymaking, you cannot switch between these roles. Pick one and stick to it.
Policymaking can sometimes be haphazard, but it often adheres to one basic formula:
Problem identified → Evidence assessed → Solution formulated → Implementation
If you want to contribute to this process, the most successful entry point is at the very beginning, before a problem has even been identified. So you’ll need to build up a relationship with policymakers over time—not the easiest task, I grant you, given the turnover in some government departments.
You also need to be realistic about what you can achieve. You may believe that your groundbreaking research has the potential to revolutionise healthcare, but it could actually destabilise it. Avoid the seemingly obvious trap (into which many fall) of forgetting that evidence-based policymaking is about understanding what works in practice. Potential policy collaborations will likely be scuppered if you’re too gung-ho, unrealistic or unaware of the policy problems you’re trying to help solve. Take the time to understand your audience—because if you want to influence policy, it will need to be in a way that helps them. What are their objectives? What pressures are they under? What do they want from you? What do you want from them, and what is the best way to get it?
Remember I said that policymakers won’t necessarily know who to contact or what to read? Our role is to draw a roadmap for them. Policymakers won’t have specialist knowledge, so capitalise on basic pieces of information. For example, the discontent and concern over Nye Bevan’s plans for a new National Health Service in 1948 might seem like standard knowledge to us, but it may not be so obvious to policymakers. Often, our value in the policymaking process will be laying out the basic history of a particular issue, or drawing links between different periods and ideas.
Be savvy about this. Think carefully about the dominant narratives in your area and identify windows of opportunity. Does your research speak to current events or policy changes? Has a Select Committee recently issued a call for submissions?
The ‘brutal simplicity of thought’ – Saatchi and Saatchi
So, you’ve navigated the uncharted territories of Whitehall and now find yourself sitting before a Select Committee or a collection of frazzled, time-pressed advisors. What do you say to them? And you have only three minutes before you lose your audience’s attention.
Peer-reviewed scholarship is usually pretty weak on policy. So, you’ll need to train yourself to think and write about policy-relevant historical events—like the formation of the NHS—from a very different perspective. You may believe that your research is of the utmost importance and relevance, but your audience probably doesn’t share your enthusiasm. So how can you craft an exciting and effective policy pitch?
You’ll need to start with the basics. NEVER begin with, “Hello. I’ve got a PhD. You should listen to me…”. And NEVER assume that your audience is familiar with academic topics, concepts or language. When making a policy pitch, think carefully about what you’re trying to say. Make sure it can be easily summarised and quoted. Present punchy, novel and interesting material. Relate to what people already know, but in unexpected ways. Be an informed, flexible and good communicator. Keep your policy contribution focused on current events. And, finally, keep it short and simple.
Are you Googleable?
Since our publications are not always readily accessible without institutional logins, you’ll need to ensure that your online presence is extensive, sophisticated and up to date. Include all new publications, projects and public engagement. Social media is key to getting the attention of the mainstream press and broadcasters, so make sure you have an active Twitter account and personal website (even consider purchasing your domain name). But there’s no point having all this shiny content if no one can find it. So, identify keywords that define you and your research, and integrate them regularly into your content.
As with your policy contributions, be mindful of your intended audience and tailor your online profile and content accordingly. You’ll need to demonstrate that you’re an established and respected academic, but it’s not sufficient just to talk about your research. Your content needs to entertain, challenge and motivate your audience. It should speak to their emotions as much as their intellectual curiosity. Part of being a reliable policy contributor is your ability to comment insightfully on breaking news. What, for example, can your historical perspective bring to debate about NHS funding detailed in the spring budget? And if you’re worried about traction on your own website, consider writing for forums like The Conversation. Finally, your personality needs to be stamped on your content, and the best way to do this is through personal stories and a relaxed, conversational tone.
As academics, this is perhaps the most important (but trickiest) part of policy engagement. How does one demonstrate that one’s policy work has had a tangible, positive impact? You will need to show that it has stimulated public debate and contributed to public understanding. This is harder than it sounds. For REF2020 we may need documented evidence, such as transcripts from Select Committees or letters of support from our collaborators in government, charities, think tanks etc.
‘Engaging with Government’ has made me realise that policymaking is not as unfathomable or remote as I had previously supposed. In September, Dr Jessica Meyer and I will be putting some of these ideas into practice when we host ‘Patient Voices‘. Why not come along?