In this post, Mara Goetz, Knowledge Exchange and Impact Team Administrator, synthesises the learning shared at a recent panel event on engaging with policymakers.
The Learning Lunch event hosted by the Knowledge Exchange and Impact Team this month focused on how to engage with policymakers. Our speakers were Professor Nicola McEwen and Dr Marc Geddes from the School of Social and Political Science, and Laura Cockram from the Research Support Office. Between them, the panel had extensive practical and varied experience of engaging with policymakers and shared insights, tips, anecdotes, as well as helpful explanations on how certain aspects of policy-making processes work.
“It’s just like teaching, you have to learn as you go”, Professor Nicola McEwen
Nicola spoke about her journey as an academic into engaging with policymakers. She reflected on how to make a start when you are only just starting out. Two of the key points were spotting opportunities to get your foot in the door and continuous learning. Just like with teaching, academics all have to make a start at some point, and eventually gain experience to feel better prepared when engaging with students. Engaging with policymakers can be seen in a similar way, and learning by doing was a valuable tip. The panel as a whole encouraged the audience to take that first step.
Curate your profile and hone your message
The panel were clear about what these first actions could be. Policymakers tend to notice researchers through media platforms, so it is important to build a profile. This can include social media platforms as well as radio, television or print news. If you are just starting out and are looking for practice, afternoon television or local radio might be the way to go in order to practice in a less pressurised environment. Because communicating research to non-academics is a distinct skill, and as with all other skills, practice makes perfect.
It is also worth remembering that the same message can be repeated via a variety of platforms. In connection with this, the panel stressed that it is important to adapt the form and tone of your message: policymakers are not interested in lengthy academic papers, so practise compressing your message into a succinct and memorable message. A good tip was also to be responsive to the news cycle and make an informed response to what’s going on.
Research, seek and build strategic relationships
A key part of engaging with policymakers is to recognise opportunities when they come along and exploit them. Building valuable and fruitful relationships will take some time and effort, but will pay off in the long term. Be sure to do your research on the people, policies and legislation you are looking to engage with. This might be with civil servants working for the Scottish or UK Governments, politicians and their research staff, and/or parliamentary clerks in committees relevant to your research.
In order to look out for opportunities that will be of most benefit, you have to be aware of where your research fits in with current legislative programs, agendas, or current committees that relate to your field.
A good starting point for getting in touch with policymakers who are relevant to your research are cross-party groups (in the Scottish Parliament), all party groups (in the UK Parliament) and committees. The work programmes of committees can be quite broad, as the role of a committee is to scrutinise parliamentary decision making and spending, by way of gathering evidence on a Bill (a piece of draft legislation before it becomes law) or conducting inquiries. Since committees always seek to hear from a variety of stakeholders, engaging with a committee is a good opportunity to make an impact, most commonly through submitting written or oral evidence to the committee.
Marc also benefited from a short Fellowship in the UK Parliament, which he found an excellent way to build relationships with key people working in Parliament. The Scottish Parliament also offers Fellowship opportunities. Your research expertise is valuable and valued, but policy-makers will not know about you or your expertise unless you take advantage of opportunities to engage and build relationships with them.
Engaging with a parliamentary committee
Three key points to bear in mind for providing evidence for and working with a committee:
- Policymakers on a committee are looking for help understanding or framing the issue at hand.
- Policymakers are looking for you as a researcher to give an opinion on how a problem can be solved or at least better understood.
- You should ensure that your submission to the committee responds to all their questions in the call for evidence.
Another direct way to engage with policymakers in the Scottish Parliament was mentioned by Laura: Since any MSP can lodge an amendment to a bill during the legislative scrutiny process, consider targeting an MSP directly with your insight, evidence or suggestions in order to suggest a Bill amendment.
During the discussion, the topic of collaborating with partner organisations was raised. Partnering up with an organisation is another powerful way to make impact and engage. The Knowledge Exchange and Impact Team can help connect you to people or external organisations who have experience or who may be a helpful contact for you.
Step by step
The big question of ‘Where do I start with that?’ is less daunting when the process is broken down into clear steps. The ones suggested by the panel were:
- Be clear about what you’re trying to achieve and what you want.
- Then find out if there are specific people or committees in the Scottish or UK Parliaments who are working on this and might be interested.
- Get in touch with them and try to connect, even if it’s just an email with some brief points or a coffee to begin with.
- Get help from people in the university to develop a strategy. The Knowledge Exchange and Impact Team within the Research Support Office can help you develop this through one-to-one advice.