- How researchers should best engage with public policy (and vice versa) is not a new concern, but is an area where universities are now increasingly active in supporting researchers.
- Much of the current debate and available guidance has a strong focus on UK institutions; Oxford is also interested in helping researchers to engage internationally.
- International policy engagement refers to working with the governments and parliaments of countries outside the UK, or with international organisations.
- This guidance consists of this Overview and eight separate Guidance Notes.
Why we produced this guidance
The relationship between public policy and evidence from research is not a new issue, but is one that is commanding increasing attention in UK universities.
It has been a matter of concern – and has presented a number of long-standing challenges – at least since the Haldane Report of 1918, which emphasised the importance of improved research and analysis in policy formulation. It is not that those on the government side of the equation have been unaware of the issues. Training aimed at improving the uptake of research by government departments was part of the curriculum offered to civil servants by the former Civil Service College by the early 1990s, and during that decade a wider debate around the concept of evidence-based policy-making and its implications flourished among academic specialists and policy practitioners. The Modernising Government White Paper of March 1999 included a commitment to improve the government’s use of evidence and research to understand better the problems it was trying to address, and gave new impetus to consideration of the use of research in policy making. Nevertheless, academic researchers who want to get their voices heard and their knowledge reflected in the policy process can still face considerable obstacles.
From the 1990s onwards British universities have become increasingly actively involved in promoting policy engagement, and this trend has been reinforced by the inclusion of the assessment of “impact” in the Research Excellence Framework from 2014 onwards (replacing the “indicators of esteem” which had featured in the Research Assessment Exercise from 1986 to 2008). Policy engagement has emerged, alongside engagement with business and with the public, as a specific field of support which universities seek to provide for their research communities.
Like our counterparts in other universities, we in the University of Oxford’s Policy Engagement Team are looking to strengthen policy engagement by researchers and to support evidence-informed policy-making. There is already a large amount of available guidance on various aspects of policy engagement, and numerous forums for discussion and learning. However, attention has been largely focused on relationships with domestic institutions, including the UK government and parliament, the devolved governments and parliaments, and local government. Given the significant levels of international engagement and internationally relevant research across the University, we saw that there was also a need to help researchers to engage with public policy-making more widely. This includes interactions both with national and sub-national governments across the world, and with the international organisations who often exert a decisive influence on national policies, especially in low and middle income countries.
Who this guidance is for
This guidance has been developed primarily for the use of researchers in all disciplines across the University of Oxford. Many of the issues addressed are, however, of relevance to researchers and research support staff in higher education institutions throughout the UK, and we hope that it will therefore also be helpful to a wider audience.
It is likely that the guidance will prove most helpful to researchers who are beginning to explore the connections between their fields of research interest and the concerns of policy-makers, and that much of the content will already be familiar to more experienced researchers who have already worked their way through the issues. Nevertheless, we hope that readers of all levels of experience will find something of value in it, and we would welcome any comments and suggestions that would render it more useful (or correct any errors).
In preparing this material we have drawn on a wealth of resources, as well as on the knowledge and experience of a number of researchers and research support staff, from across this and other universities, on advice from officials and former officials of international organisations, and on the authors’ own experience of working with the UK governments and parliaments and with many overseas governments. We are very grateful to all those who have provided their assistance in this way, and hope to be able to continue a dialogue with them as thinking about how to make policy engagement more effective continues to evolve.
Defining the international arena
For these purposes policy engagement internationally is taken to mean engagement with policy communities and governance institutions outside of the home nations of the UK. This has two implications.
First, universities are cosmopolitan institutions and a large proportion of the researchers within them will be citizens of other countries. The issues discussed here relate primarily to working with organisations outside of the territory in which the research institution is located, rather than the nationality of the researchers concerned – though, for example, a Chinese researcher working in Oxford and wanting to engage with government bodies in China would probably have a number of advantages over a British national of the same level of seniority. Secondly, our concern is not with influencing UK policy on international matters; a researcher with information about Uganda, for example, might seek to engage with Ugandan policy actors, or they might be more interested in working with UK government departments or the APPG on Uganda to try to influence British diplomacy or aid or trade policy towards that country. Our interest here is only in the former case.
We make another crucial distinction here, between engagement with the national (or sub-national or local) governance institutions of foreign countries, and engagement with international organisations. The latter category includes the numerous entities within the UN family, including the World Bank Group and World Trade Organization, other intergovernmental organisations such as the OECD, and the institutions of supranational unions like the European Union. Engagement with international bodies presents in some ways fewer obstacles, of access and contextual understanding, than is often the case with engagement at the country level, but there are distinct advantages and disadvantages associated with each. The guidance also refers to the useful role that can be played by international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) – such as the large humanitarian charities like Oxfam – as users and commissioners of research, but our principal focus is on intergovernmental bodies.
How this guidance is structured
The guidance takes the form of this short Overview paper and eight separate Guidance Notes, which can be read either as a continuous document or as freestanding pieces. The whole document can be downloaded as a single PDF file, or each Guidance Note can be downloaded separately. Links are provided throughout to useful resources, but these are also identified in footnotes for the benefit of anyone reading a printed version. Some of the material in the Notes represents an approach to policy engagement which we would not expect to change very rapidly, but other aspects will be updated and expanded over time, especially as new resources and information become available. Text boxes at the beginning of each Guidance Note and at other points through the document aim to provide a concise summary of key points. Cross-references between Guidance Notes in the series are supported by hyperlinks.
Guidance Note 1 discusses what we mean by policy engagement, and why it matters or should matter to academic researchers. It examines some of the factors that motivate researchers towards policy engagement, and the relationship between engagement and impact.
Guidance Note 2 considers some of the common features of policy-making, and offers some help in understanding the processes involved. While the institutional environment in which policy is made, the social, economic and political imperatives which drive policy, and the detailed procedures involved can vary greatly from country to country, there are some elements which are frequently encountered in different settings. This discussion covers well-known territory for those who specialise in the study of government or public administration, but may be useful background for those less familiar with these topics.
Guidance Note 3 sets out some basic principles of policy engagement. Many of the considerations that apply when trying to strengthen the interface between academic research and public policy processes in the UK, and many of the principles of good practice that have evolved in recent years, are equally relevant to engagement in the international arena. The principles discussed here are therefore intended to be of general applicability, whether in the UK or elsewhere, although every case will have its own specific circumstances and not every point will be relevant in every instance.
Guidance Note 4 lists some useful sources of further information and guidance on policy engagement generally, and some of the places where a lively debate is currently being progressed around several related issues. It also includes a chart showing some of the principal variables that characterise different forms of or approaches to policy engagement. It is proposed here as a diagnostic tool that may help researchers to reflect on their own approach and possible other modes of engagement.
Guidance Note 5 draws attention to some of the specific issues which researchers are likely to encounter when working, or seeking to work, with governments and parliaments outside the UK.
Guidance Note 6 discusses the advantages and disadvantages of engaging with international organisations rather than national authorities.
Guidance Note 7 describes some of the resources currently available in the University of Oxford to support researchers in pursuing policy engagement, both in the UK and in particular internationally. It also outlines some of the resources available from other UK universities to support international policy engagement.
Guidance Note 8 offers a self-diagnostic tool to help researchers reflect on their own current or intended approach to policy engagement, and possible alternatives.
This guidance has been prepared on behalf of the University of Oxford’s Policy Engagement Team by Andrew Wyatt and Eleanor Bayley. Andrew began his career in university administration before joining the UK civil service, where he spent 23 years in a variety of policy, management and training roles. Since 2003 he has worked principally in international development consultancy, specialising in policy and governance issues, first for an Oxford-based consultancy company and now as an independent. Eleanor has a background in parliamentary strengthening internationally, primarily working on behalf of the UK Parliament. She has also worked with a number of governments internationally on policy and governance reform, for an Oxford-based consultancy company. Eleanor was the Deputy Head of Policy Engagement at the University of Oxford between 2019 and 2020.
The authors and the Policy Engagement Team would like to thank all those who shared relevant experience and insights, in particular: Yaryna Basystyuk, Nicola Buckley, Gareth Giles, Professor Damian Grimshaw, Megan Marsh, Stephen Meek, Lauren Milden, Chris Sims and Greg Taylor.
The Policy Engagement team would welcome feedback on these notes. This can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Listed here are the abbreviations used throughout this series of Guidance Notes.
APPG All-Party Parliamentary Group
CMO Congressional Member Organization
CSaP Centre for Science and Policy
DAC Development Assistance Committee
DFID Department for International Development
FCO Foreign and Commonwealth Office
GCRF Global Challenges Research Fund
ILO International Labour Organization
INGO International Non-Governmental Organisation
JRC Joint Research Centre
LMIC Low and Middle Income Countries
LSHTM London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
OECD Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development
ODA Official Development Assistance
OPEN Oxford Policy Engagement Network
RAE Research Assessment Exercise
REF Research Excellence Framework
SDG Sustainable Development Goal
UKRI UK Research and Innovation
UPEN Universities Policy Engagement Network