Lesson 1, Topic 1
In Progress

Policy and Policy Professionals

What is policy and who are the policy professionals?

So far, policy has been referred to but not defined. Before choosing your approach to working with policy, it is necessary to ask what policy is, who the policy professionals are and how we can claim any of what happens as a result of our engagement is “impact”.

Broadly speaking, a policy is any course of action that is proposed or adopted by an organisation in pursuit of a goal. While ‘public policy’ usually describes the work of government, it is worth distinguishing between types of action and types of governance. Types of action include making a policy statement, passing legislation, or delivering a public service, and types of governance include the various ways policy can be influenced, made, and delivered by a large number of governmental and non-governmental organisations. Indeed, half the battle of seeking policy influence is to identify with whom to engage and when. Some research might influence ministerial thinking in central government; other research might engage with local networks of organisations that influence and deliver policy.

In other words, it is always worth considering who the ‘policymakers’ are. This term is often used loosely to mean anyone from a junior evidence analyst to a government minister, with the implication that these people ‘make’ policy. In reality, in any democracy the policymaking process is far more complex, involving both politicians and civil servants, as they engage with others who provide policy ideas and evidence.

Similarly, you will often hear people referring to “the policy community” as though it is a fixed group of people who all know each other and have the power to make policy. In reality, policy is developed and shaped by diverse and dynamic networks of people, who are often unaware of what people in other policy teams are doing. They sometimes have limited understanding of the issues they are working on and have even more limited control over the policy environment within which they are working. These include politicians and civil servants working in government departments, staff working for government agencies, quasi-governmental organisations and other delivery bodies (such as schools and police forces), charities and other third sector organisations, think tanks, lobbyists, consultants and academic researchers, to name just a few.

These different people and organisations move in and out of different policy networks as issues come on and off the political agenda and come in and out of public debate. As a result, rather than trying to reach a policy team directly, you may instead work with someone in a government agency or third sector organisation who already has a strong relationship with the relevant team and is more likely to be able to get the key points from your research across to them in a way that is relevant, efficient and effective.

At this point, it is important to allay any fears you may have about the idea of ‘influencing’ policy as manipulating or lobbying. As a researcher, it is essential that the research you hope might contribute towards policy meets the standards of rigour in your discipline, typically including peer-review, and where possible including evidence synthesis beyond the findings of your current project. When this course refers to ‘influencing’ policy, it refers to proactive knowledge exchange with relevant people, who may (or may not) go on to develop policy based on your research. This contrasts with ‘informing’ policy, which refers to a more reactive process of transferring knowledge and making evidence available when requested. Clearly there is room for both informing and influencing policy, and the latter often follows from the former.