In our latest guest blog, Dr Anna Krzywoszynska from Durham University reflects on the workshop session she ran on ‘Policy engagement and the nexus’ in the afternoon of the Nexus Network Annual Conference on 19 November 2015.
Why engage with policymakers (at all)?
As academics, we are encouraged by our universities and the funding bodies to ‘engage with policymakers’ to achieve real world impact from our research. But ‘how’ and ‘when’ and indeed ‘whether’ to engage policymakers at all, are questions too often left unasked.
I recently spent time in Defra as the Nexus Network Fellow, gaining insights into Defra’s organisational and power structures. I have been reflecting on these experiences and thinking more broadly about the best ways to direct our efforts with policy makers.
The workshop allowed me put these thoughts into conversation with other conference participants and here I pick up on some of the discussion themes:
Follow the power
Are policymakers the right people for us as academics to engage with?
An individual civil servant’s capacity to act within government departments, even at the highest levels, is highly restricted by pre-existing and emerging political commitments of the government. Even at the top of the political hierarchy, civil servants and politicians are situated within networks of broader economic and political power networks which are beyond the influence of any one individual.
The power to affect real-world change does not reside in Westminster alone. We need to recognise and work with a fuller array of stakeholders; we can join efforts with existing civil society movements, pressure groups, and NGOs, who have overall been successful in influencing national policies, and in creating real-world change. Working with key industrial stakeholders may also be a more effective and direct way of achieving impact.
Policy makers are also responsive to media campaigns and public pressure.
In terms of impact a powerful media campaign is worth a thousand papers.
Finally, the devolutionary trend may offer more opportunities for us to engage with local authorities and create change at the level of cities and regions, which for some of us may already be a more appropriate scale for action.
From providing soundbites to co-production
Upsetting the hierarchical vision of power implicit in the calls to engage with policymakers, puts in question the accepted wisdom that we need to simplify and distil research findings into soundbite-sized key messages.
Even if these messages are received by policymakers, it is unlikely that they will arrive at the right time and the right place to be effective. Co-ordinating the timing of research and policy is thus key, and that cannot happen by unilateral effort alone.
Just as academics are unlikely to be effective through bombarding policymakers with potentially irrelevant information, policymakers will not make the best use of academics if they only approach us when they think they need our expertise.
By the time the policymakers turn to us for help or advice, it can be too late, as the commitments to particular framings of the problem(s) will have already become entrenched.
A more promising model is co-production of research with policymakers – and all other relevant stakeholders – from the very beginning of our inquiry. Individual relationships with civil servants may offer opportunities for such co-production, although meeting the relevant civil servant is not an easy task, made all the more difficult by the constant circulation of civil service staff, and a lack of dedicated match-making teams at government departments and at research institutions. However, the more relevant stakeholders we can bring to the fold from the very beginning, the better.
As Dr Antonio Ioris from the University of Edinburgh remarked,
Co-production of research can result not just in influencing policy, but in transforming policy, including the policymaking process and the narratives which underlie it.
Ideally, such co-production of research would include joint generation of research questions, and involvement throughout the research process. The findings of a research project which was co-conceived and co-delivered are also likely to be more impactful within the organisations involved.
The overall message of the session was: we need to be strategic about how we use our time when trying to create real-world impacts from our research.
When considering where our impact priorities lie, we need to be reflexive about the power structures within which our objects of research interest are situated. Analysing these power structures will help us identify the most relevant stakeholders to engage with, instead of banging blindly on the door of government departments.
Policymakers may not always be the best stakeholders for us to bring to the table, and changing government policy may not be the Holy Grail of impact in all contexts.
Power in our society is much more complex and distributed, and it is time we became smarter about the position academic research can play within these networks of power – as academics, as institutions, and as research funders.
To deliver the co-production of research model we need to change how research is currently funded. We need easier access to seed-corn funding which would make time and space for designing research questions and processes together with stakeholders.
We also need to broaden the remit of institutionally rewarded impact beyond policy, and recognise the value of other relationships and efforts – Dr William Burns pointed out the work of the UK Energy Research Centre as a good example in this regard.
I would like to say a big ‘thank you’ to everyone who took part in this great discussion.