Getting started in Policy Engagement: pathways to engagement

As a researcher it can be difficult to know where to start with Policy Engagement. Once you have identified the potential policy implications of your research, the key is to work out who you need to talk to, think about how they could make use of your findings, and try an identify moments when your input could provide the most value.

Royal galleryMuch like evidence synthesis in research, policy is built on informed people synthesising information and evidence, and presenting it to decision makers. Sometimes the decision maker and evidence synthesiser is the same person, but not as often as you would think! So, it is a myth that academics need to get direct contact with government ministers, as there are many other pathways to engage.

One of the most important factors in policy engagement is timeliness. Political processes follow timelines which don’t always align with academic ones, so it is necessary to be flexible. A consistent piece of advice from academics experienced in policy engagement is not to miss deadlines!  Policymakers work within a framework of competing demands and changing priorities, so there is no point submitting your evidence after the decision has been made or political interest has moved on.

Related to this is another common myth that academics shouldn’t engage with policy makers until they have a complete and finalised piece of research. Policy engagement can take place at any stage of the research process, depending on your desired outcome. If you think your research could possibly have policy implications then the best time to start thinking about policy engagement is at the inception stage of your research. In fact, evidence suggests that academic-policy partnerships that begin early in the research process are more likely to be sustained long-term and effectively utilized by policymakers. Policy makers are less concerned about absolute certainty than academic channels, because you are not the only one providing input.

The reality is that there are innumerable pathways to engage with policy makers, but these are the three main ones: 

1. Direct engagement using government channels

There are various opportunities  for contributing evidence directly to the government, such as APPG’s, Select Committees and POSTnotes. This is the most obvious pathway to sharing research evidence with policy makers in the UK.

These pathways have set processes and deadlines for submitting evidence. They also usually call for submissions on specific topics, so it is important to monitor the calls and seize the chance when a relevant call is announced.

The Policy Engagement Team has also published guidance notes on how to engage with international governments and parliaments. This resource providing tips on effective policy engagement can be found here.

To make this easier the OPEN Alert collates opportunities and sends them to members in a personalised weekly email. You can register for the OPEN Alert here.

See how Arlene Holmes-Henderson informed education policy by engaging with an APPG

2. Seizing the moment.

One of the times government relies on input from academics the most is during a crisis. If a subject is in the news and you have something to contribute it is worth investigating who in policy is working on the issue, and reaching out to them to offer your assistance.

Another key way to connect with government during a crisis is to be visible in other spaces, such as the news media or social media. It is worth cultivating your skills and presence in these areas, not only so policy makers can easily find you but so they know you can be trusted and are likely to be willing to speak with them. Policy makers can be as uncertain about how to contact academics as academics are contacting them – so if they know you are approachable it makes things easier.

It is important to note that it is much easier to engage with policy makers during a crisis if they have interacted with you already, so it is worth developing key relationships during ‘non-crisis’ times as well.  A simple but effective way to start doing so is by monitoring your network behavior using a stakeholder map to track interactions and identify opportunities for engagement.

Find out how Seth Flaxman and Lucie Cluver helped protect children orphaned during the Covid-19 pandemic.

3. Symbiosis – connecting over shared interests and building a relationship from there

This method of engagement can be the most impactful and require the lowest resource commitment.

Quote: Rather annoyingly, it can be the casual interactions at events or a small action arising from a meeting that can lead to the greatest impact. Dr Sarah Higginson, Knowledge Exchange Specialist

There are many crossover spaces where academics and policy makers may interact. Take advantage of these times to speak to people and build your network.

One of the most effective ways for academics to build trust and have policy impact is to engage policy makers IN their research. If you think your research will have policy implications you can reach out to relevant policy makers and ask for a conversation to inform your thinking. This does not influence the independence of your research, it is simply increasing your contextual understanding and ideally refining your research approach.

Discover how Madeleine Sumption and Jamie Hartmann-Boyce developed relationships which led to strengthened policy decision making.

A final thing to consider is that funders are increasingly asking for a plan for, or evidence of, impact in grant applications. Showing your research’s value to policy is a fantastic way to prove its relevance to funders, but it is notoriously hard to prove impact in policy engagement using finished research. It is therefore vital to consider how you will monitor and evaluate your progress, while continuously learning from the policy engagement process itself.

Find more inspiration on pathways to policy engagement in the OPEN Researcher Stories video series. OPEN provides various funding and development opportunities to support academics to develop their policy engagement capacity. Find out more about funding here and development opportunities here. The OPEN team are here to help if you need advice on how best to undertake policy engagement reach out to your divisional contact here.