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Engaging with policymakers internationally

In this blog, Madeleine Beveridge, Knowledge Exchange and Impact Coordinator, shares learning and discussion points from our recent Knowledge Exchange Learning Lunch on Engaging with Policymakers Internationally. 

We are lucky to have the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Government, and Edinburgh City Council all within a bus journey of the University of Edinburgh campus. This access allows many of our researchers to engage with Scottish policy at a national or local level for example by attending cross-party groups, inviting local authority staff to stakeholder meetings, giving evidence to parliamentary committees, or just arranging a coffee with someone who knows someone in the relevant department.

But how do you influence policy when the decision makers are based in another country?

At this learning lunch, a panel of three researchers from the University of Edinburgh College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences shared their experience of engaging with policymakers internationally.

  • Sole Garcia Ferrari (Edinburgh College of Art), with experience of engaging with policymakers in Latin American countries in her projects on urban development and regeneration.
  • Kathryn Nash (Edinburgh Law School), who has worked in the US Department of State and currently works on a large political settlements research programme that engages with many policymakers across many different countries.
  • Sam Spiegel (School of Social and Political Science), with experience of advising civil society organisations, the UN Commission on Sustainable Development and various UN agencies connected to his research on international development, with recent projects in some African and Asian countries.

How can we influence policymakers internationally – recommendations from the panel:

  • Use pilot or seed funding to arrange travel for planning, pre-project, and networking meetings, and ensure policy makers and community partners are involved in these.
  • Apply for policy fellowships e.g. POST, SPICe, FCO to develop a network on policy contacts.
  • Network with people beyond specific ministers – NGOs, think tanks, civil servants may all stay in place if a particular government changes.
  • Make a note of specific priorities mentioned by policymakers, and contact them as and when your research plan align with those priorities.
  • Take advantage of internal impact funding such as the ESRC Impact Acceleration Account or College and School KE and Impact grants.
  • Be clear whether your aim is to advocate for a specific solution, or to explore several possible solutions and leave the decision making to the policymakers.
  • Don’t just disseminate: policymakers should be involved in the research process, not just as a recipient of briefings.
  • Invest in (quick, community level) bottom-up changes. They can provide momentum or justification for (longer-term, policy driven) top-down change.
  • Use a range of methods, and don’t be afraid to be (politely) subversive.

Relationships (and trust) are key

All panellists were clear on the importance of establishing trust, preferably via face to face meetings. This means investing time to involve policymakers at the earliest stages – even before the research question has been finalised and the application submitted.

However, it’s important to think ahead to what might happen if the people you engage early on leave their posts at a later date. One option is to involve civil servants and think tanks as well as policymakers themselves. These groups tend to be less transitory, and may be able to introduce you to incoming policymakers and provide some continuity for the project.

One emerging theme was the importance of building on relationships over time. For example, a small amount of funding early on may lead to bigger projects at a later date. Informal chats with policymakers at a conference or networking event may give you an insight into their priorities; this allows you to follow up with them later on if your research looks like it’s heading in that direction.

While the climate emergency means being conscious of travel, panellists agreed that face to face contact is an integral part of research with international policy implications. They suggested that researchers (and funders) should consider how best to minimise or offset this necessary travel (e.g. by investing in local initiatives to mitigate or adapt to climate change).

Understand local context

All speakers stressed the importance of having on-the-ground partners (e.g. local NGOs or community groups) involved right from the initial project idea. This not only helps build trust with the local community, but also helps increase understanding of the local context.

Sole Garcia-Ferrari pointed out that you can’t assume that either the policymakers, or the local community, will share your idea of what the priorities should be. This is one of the reasons why it’s crucial to have face to face meetings early on, to allow you to adapt your research to their priorities. It’s also important to take time scales into account: some changes can take many years, or even decades to achieve. What can you do to embed shorter term outcomes into the project, which align with more immediate policy objectives?

In terms of working with local partners, Sam Spiegel encouraged researchers to take advantage of internal university funds for supporting impact, for example the University’s ESRC Impact Acceleration Account funding: £20,000 going directly to a local partner can make a significant difference to their ability to influence policy.

Kathryn Nash noted that it may not always be the role of the researcher to provide policymakers with a single solution. Sometimes, as with the political resettlements programme, the project aims to offer possibilities, highlight best practice, and show what has or has not worked in various contexts, while leaving the choice of what to do up to those embedded more fully in the specific context of that country, region, or community.

Prioritise “bottom-up” engagement with local communities

Engaging with policymakers is often seen as a top-down process: we create and share research with the people who have decision making power. But engaging with local communities is just as important, and provides a parallel mechanism for potential change.

For example, Sole’s experience of working in Latin America is that many policy makers will seek community approval for proposed changes. Therefore, engaging directly with those communities can help demonstrate to policymakers that your recommendations would likely be approved at a community level, and provide smaller scale “proof of concept” based on your research.

On the other hand, Sam’s experience of working in Africa and Asia is that many governments do little, if any, consultation with communities; engaging with those communities can be an important way of ensuring their voices are heard in the policy process.

In both cases, the impact of the research on policy was greater because the researchers actively engaged with local citizens as well as policy makers themselves.

Methods matter

The final theme to emerge from discussion was the importance of using different methods to engage people. These included community workshops, interviewing policymakers, and storytelling through photography. The type of method you use will depend on your aim: for example, Sam described how using artistic methods such as visual arts and drama can allow research teams to more easily introduce sensitive topics. Remember that you are involved as a researcher, not an external consultant. The methods you use can (and in some cases should) be slightly subversive in order to open up challenging conversations.

Both Kathryn and Sole urged researchers to move beyond doing the research alone and then writing a “policy brief” to be shared with policymakers. These are very unlikely to be read; for policymakers to engage with your findings, they need to be involved much earlier than this. When you do communicate with policymakers, remember brevity is key, executive summaries are required for anything over two pages, and plain language trumps academic-ese.

Finally, in response to concerns about academic freedom and aligning research with policy priorities, the panel emphasised that all research funders have priorities; aligning research interests with areas of focus is a constant negotiation, and is not specific to policy research. They advised researchers to push back where they felt uncomfortable with a particular framing or direction, and to maintain the right to publish wherever possible (for consultancy, Edinburgh Innovations can help negotiate this in a contract), although noting that this may not always be possible with very sensitive data. So, read the small print before you sign!

The event was organised and chaired by Dr Shonagh McEwan, Knowledge Exchange and Communications Advisor at Edinburgh Research Office.


Where to start with Parliamentary engagement

Engaging with Policymakers

How to write effective policy briefings


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