Influencing policy-making: how to engage governments with your research

by Kirsty Sedgman

24 Apr 2017

Before moving to Bristol University to start my British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship in September last year, I was stuck in mid-Wales working as an independent researcher. I remember vividly that sense of being out on a limb: scrambling to put together articles, finishing my book, and working out how to position myself in this impossibly competitive market. With the PhD officially over and no university affiliation to lean on, it was tough to figure out how to navigate the early-career landscape. So for me, one of the most exciting things about being a new Postdoctoral fellow has been the chance to take up exclusive networking and training opportunities.

Something particularly puzzling is the question of how research projects can be given an afterlife beyond the academic sphere. We all know that universities are looking for ‘impact’ – but how does this work in practice? How do you persuade people outside your field to care about your research? This was the focus of the British Academy’s recent ‘Influences on Policy-Making’ workshop, run in collaboration with Dods Training’s ‘Westminster Explained’ division. The course is designed to equip academics with strategies for feeding findings into UK government policies. It was brilliant: full of real-world examples and concrete suggestions about how (and how not) to approach parliamentarians.

It’s important to mention first that much of the course focused on teaching us about the eccentricities of UK government. I went in with only the woolliest of understandings, so for me this was illuminating, but I don’t have space here to write a guide to Westminster’s structures or rituals (and in any case, all this is easily Googleable). What most stuck with me, however, is the way the course unveiled the human element behind the parliamentary curtain. Ministers, we were regularly reminded, are incredibly busy people. That might sound obvious, but the sheer scale of the jobs cannot be underestimated: one of the MPs talked about starting at 7am and getting home at midnight, then going through their ‘red box’ (containing the daily batch of paperwork that civil servant teams have deemed pertinent) for another couple of hours at least. 

Parliament works at a different timescale to academia, even with today’s accelerated pace. With ministers tending to spend around three years in each role, they don’t have the luxury of becoming an expert in their field. Instead they have to become experts at parsing expertise, making sense of evidence that comes at them from a wide range of sources: for example, from lobbying groups, private companies, charities, universities. It’s also tempting to believe that politicians simply don’t care about evidence-based policy, but that’s not necessarily the case; we heard from MPs who talked thoughtfully about moments when research had fundamentally informed their work. Ministers tend to get into politics, we were told, because they want to make a difference. Sadly, the timescales for this are very short: politicians need to achieve something practical in the real world, and to see it take effect immediately.

So when you’re thinking about influencing policy, don’t just follow the evidence. That’s only one circle in three of an interlocking Venn diagram, in which Evidence must be weighed against two other things: Politics and Delivery. These points do not always connect. Entirely evidentiary policies may lose elections; ministers have to work not only for (what they may believe to be) the public good, but also for their place in the hierarchy and for the future of the party as a whole. On top of that, policies also have to be deliverable, so it’s important to make sure that a delivery plan is embedded into the policy-making process from the start.

So what do people in government really want from academia? Essentially, ready-made policies – policies that, moreover, connect with their own interests and aims. These should be based on clear evidence, should quickly enable the minister to achieve the things they want, and should be easily (and inexpensively) deliverable. So that’s what you need to consider. But how?

  1. Research the best person to approach. This might not be the person you’d necessarily think of first; you have options. A government MP? A shadow minister? Someone from a devolved government? The chair of an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG)? An appointed peer with a particular interest in your field?

  2. Work out what’s in it for them. How do your findings connect with the things they want to achieve? Give them solutions to problems. Remember you’re just one voice amongst many.

  3. Once you’re sure of your message, pick up the phone and call their department, or ideally collar them in person at an event. Make an impression.

  4. Next you can write something for their red box: ideally a single side of A4, explaining in big font that you’re writing because you have a new way of delivering Policy X. Spell out the main elements in bullet points. Set out the costs, the advantages, the disadvantages. And make all this clearly relevant to your reader by bringing it in line with what ministers actually want to achieve.

All this takes time and energy, which frankly you may find better use for elsewhere. None of the above will guarantee that your work has any impact on policy whatsoever: it was no surprise to hear that politicians have hidden agendas, and that your findings risk being overlooked or distorted. Research may be tendered out in ways you wouldn’t usually accept; methodologies might not be as rigorous as you’d like; ministers may start off interested but then need to move on to other projects, as they tend to be defined by events. And of course, the research will also have to be good enough to turn into scholarly outputs – if nothing else because it might end up falling into a governmental black hole, and then you’d really have wasted valuable time. But it’s always possible that your work might have impacts in surprising ways and places. Other countries might take notice where your own doesn’t, or a future government could pick up on and run with your findings. Many academics have built their careers on the back of a policy-making trajectory in ways they didn’t originally expect.

So it wasn’t all gloomy. In fact, I came out of the session with a sense of realistic optimism. Because if you want to engage with policy-makers, you have to be prepared to be pragmatic. You must have a concrete outcome in mind, something you passionately want to achieve, and you need to really visualise the practical value of your research – or else you’ll never be able to convince someone else to buy in.

A theatre researcher at the University of Bristol, Kirsty Sedgman explores the interplay between audiences, cultural institutions, power, identity, and place. Her book Locating the Audience (2016, Intellect Ltd.) was the first to explore how people developed relationships with a cultural institution at the time of its formation: the then brand-new National Theatre Wales. She is currently working on a three-year British Academy postdoctoral research fellowship investigating regional theatre audience engagement. Contact her at or on Twitter at @kirstysedgman.

The views expressed by our authors on the British Academy blog are not necessarily endorsed by Academy, but are commended as contributing to public debate.

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