Lesson 1, Topic 1
In Progress

Why do policy colleagues want to work with us?

Why do policy colleagues want to work with us?

Whether or not you want to work with people in policy, people in policy may want to work with you. Evidence analysts and researchers in government bodies are looking for high quality, accessible information to solve problems, brief strategy teams and ministers, and develop new policies. A 2015 survey of over 2000 Australian policy officials by Joshua Newman and colleagues, published in Public Administration Review suggested that more than 60% used academic research in policy reports. A similar survey of UK politicians and parliamentary staff found that 98% found research useful in their roles and over half said they used research on a daily basis to inform decisions, provide background or balance, and learn lessons from other countries. Respondents in this study, led by Caroline Kenny and published by the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology in 2017, also said that the credibility of research was a key factor they assessed, to ensure they were using what they described as “authoritative sources”.

More cynically however, politicians in Kenny’s survey also admitted that they used research for political purposes to score points over their opponents. Paul Cairney has written extensively about the politics of evidence use, and there is a legitimate concern that politicians might be using your research to legitimise policy positions or interventions they were already planning to carry out. In most cases, there is nothing wrong with the evidence that is used, but the way in which it is used may leave a lot to be desired, for example, selectively drawing on studies that support a particular position, rather than using evidence synthesis or representing contradictory studies where evidence is mixed. In this scenario, the researcher is used as a political pawn. Unless you are convinced that the evidence base for your policy suggestion is sound, there is a danger that your reputation could be called into question when others highlight more robust, contradictory evidence, especially if this later evidence is based on evidence synthesis and your suggestions were based on a single study.

Even when research is used legitimately to support policy, there is often a significant amount of politics involved in the process. If your research happens to align with current political trajectories, then the evidence suggests you are more likely to achieve impact. On the other hand, if you are researching the benefits of immigration in a country that has elected a right-wing government that is ‘clamping down’ on immigration, you are unlikely to ever get a fair hearing for your research. Indeed, research published by Katherine Smith and Ellen Stewart in 2016 in the Journal of Social Policy showed that in social policy, research that was critical of current policies was only found among the lowest scoring impacts in the UK’s 2014 Research Excellence Framework.

Policy impacts happen when research evidence and political will align. This means achieving policy impacts is highly unpredictable and often means playing the long game. The current chief executive, minister or government might not be willing to listen to your evidence, but perhaps their successor will, or perhaps you can identify others who might be able to use your evidence more disruptively to alter the course of policy?

Less cynically however, there are a host of other reasons why policy colleagues engage with researchers, which can present significant opportunities for impact. For example:

  • Working with researchers can save significant amounts of time, providing rapid access to evidence or evidence-based opinion to help guide decision-making rapidly, when there is insufficient time or resources to review the literature or commission new research.
  • Research is often commissioned to solve a targeted policy problem, identify new policy options or provide evidence for the likely effectiveness of a range of known options under different future scenarios.
  • Research may, for example, focus on the technical feasibility of policy options in policy and practice given a range of constraints, for example, predicted climate change or funding constraints, or it may investigate the social acceptability of policy options to different populations.

Different policy colleagues will engage with research for different reasons, depending on their role. For example:

  • Ministers may be more motivated to advance the political agenda of their government than backbenchers from their party and opposition parties who may be more interested using research to scrutinise, improve or oppose policies.
  • Evidence analysts, Chief Scientific Advisors and their teams may be more interested in your methods, data and the technical feasibility of the policy options you have studied, whereas policy officials and strategy teams may be more interested in your results, conclusions and the political feasibility of your ideas.