Researchers and policy makers: same challenges, different perspectives

| posted in: Blog, CommsConsult UK | 1

Recently I attended a very interesting event hosted by The University of the West of England (UWE) called ‘Increasing the Impact of Research through Policy Engagement’: A Parliamentary Workshop’.

It was a brilliant afternoon for many reasons, not least because it allowed me to go back to school and relive my student days even if just for a few hours (or rather, it reminded me how old I am!). It also allowed me to hear some clearly very intelligent people talk about what they do and are passionate about, which is always inspiring. And it allowed me to learn something (I love learning).

Specifically the workshop informed me about some of the UK Parliament’s many efforts and initiatives- including the Parliamentary Outreach services, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) and The House of Commons Library to effectively engage with and apply evidence in their policymaking. Hurrah! This was particularly pleasing for me since here at CommsConsult, we do a lot of work around supporting researchers, practitioners and policy makers to (be able to) reach out to each other in order to increase evidence-based policy making…but we tend to find that most of the reaching out is done by the researchers.

However this event reminded me that whilst researchers often ask the question (and if not they should): “how do I get people to read and use my research?”; policymakers (and those charged with ‘supplying’ evidence to policy makers) are often equally striving to ask and answer the question: “where and how can I find relevant, up to date and reliable evidence?” Researchers and policy makers often aim for the same goal and face the same challenges, just from different perspectives.

Here are some of the other really interesting reminders shared during the afternoon’s session around this theme, together with some added insights from CommsConsult’s 20 years’ experience:

  1. Policy makers are not trained researchers. Whilst policy makers need to engage with evidence, few are trained in research themselves and as such might need help in recognising what information is good or reliable. In the UK, POST helps with this by running a training methods course for MPs. They are also currently undertaking work to investigate what MPs understand as ‘evidence’. Knowledge broker initiatives, like these, are really good forums and channels for researchers and policymakers to convene.*
  2. Policymakers love figures, facts, numbers. But they can also misuse them. Don’t forget that receptivity to and use of ‘evidence’ is also subject to values, interests and beliefs. Try to really interrogate and understand the political landscape before you choose your policy influence targets and before you (strategically) engage with them. But once you’ve done that, using data visualisation tools can be powerful.
  3. Policy makers do use and like qualitative information too… but not all will understand how to use it. Make sure to work with your audience so that they are able to understand and use your evidence effectively. Case studies of one of their constituents can provide a really powerful and effective tool if messages are framed and harnessed correctly.
  4. Policy makers “are truly bombarded with information”. To get your voice heard you must be strategic in choosing where, how, what and when to communicate with them.
  5. “We will look at our own contact database first and then go and look elsewhere”. To increase the likelihood of your research being read and having impact, you need to be on the radar in the first place. Networking and engaging with other stakeholders in your area is a crucial step in research uptake.
  6. Policymakers get lots of information from the media. Proactively approaching and working with the media or with government press offices can indirectly influence policymakers’ understanding and focus on an area/issue and in turn increase demand for related evidence.

Many of these issues (and more) are dealt with on our website Research to Action (R2A), which is produced and managed by CommsConsult as a social good. R2A is intended to guide and support effective research engagement and communication, the result of which can ‘help give research a chance’ to inform decision-making processes, bring about social change and have ‘impact’. Why not visit it, contribute to it, or ask us a question via our Helpdesk now?

*Most Parliaments in Europe have an office like POST and between 2008 and 2012 they ran a programme to help African parliaments also strengthen their capacity in this crucial area.

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