A year in the life of a new policy engagement function

12 months ago, I joined the University of Warwick as the new Head of Government Affairs, charged with the exciting, and equally daunting, task of developing and implementing the institution’s strategic approach to government policy engagement. The last year has flown by in a whirlwind of meetings, long days and policy events, in-between the bread and butter of all policy roles – intelligence gathering and horizon-scanning. Here I share a few of the many lessons I’ve learned from my experiences over the past year.

A tale of two roles, from path builder to navigator…

At a strategic level, in the world of government policy engagement as with most things in rapidly evolving environments, you need to simultaneously know where you’d ideally like to get to in the long term and recognise that the path along the way is not only long and forked, but may not even exist yet in places. So you need to be prepared to do some path building as well as map reading.

Translating this into practical terms, it’s helpful to have a broad and ambitious long-term vision for the outcomes you want to achieve through your engagement activities, whether they be for example informing policy-makers, driving change in legislation or regulations, influencing behaviours, or changing the political (and public) discourse. But underpinning the vision, it’s equally important to have SMART shorter-term delivery plans, tailored to specific and tangible areas of engagement that set out the stepping stones needed to guide the journey.

It’s a balancing act, and sometimes the tightrope wobbles…

On a day-to-day basis, much of policy engagement comes down to making trade-offs and compromises between seemingly contradictory pressures. Whilst for example limited resources in higher education often make strategic prioritisation between competing claims for engagement support necessary, the uncertain and fluid nature of the external policy environment brings with it a value to innovative thinking, flexibility and even opportunism at times.

And whilst the drive for research impact in higher education creates incentives to think big in terms of long term outcomes and government engagement activities, the value of academic evidence-based engagement is often found in the detail that would otherwise be lost by focusing on the big picture. And then of course there’s the age-old challenge of balancing the speed at which the political wheels can sometimes spin (or not, as the case may be in the current climate), with that of which the wheels of research necessarily roll. These contradictions mean that sometimes the trade-offs and compromises made may turn out to be sub-optimal with the benefit of hindsight…but sometimes just staying on the tightrope is an achievement in itself.

The value of external networks…

External policy engagement networks and forums for collaboration in the higher education sector, like UPEN, are invaluable. By bringing together colleagues in similar policy engagement roles across a broad range of universities, they facilitate the transfer of learning and the exchange of good practice, they provide a space for the creation and discussion of new and diverse ideas for policy engagement, and they provide a mechanism to enable networks of external policy stakeholders to be shared and to grow, to the benefit of all.

But more than that, by becoming stakeholders in the policy landscape in their own right, these networks also create, and are able to leverage, opportunities for more powerful collective voices where members’ policy interests are aligned.

Internal relationships are just as important as external ones…

I often joke that the external policy environment sometimes feels much easier to navigate than the internal environment within the higher education sector. After spending a decade working in a wide range of organisations, from the private to public sectors, and from charities to commercial companies, before joining higher education I’d naively thought that my career experiences were pretty comprehensive. However my last year working within higher education has been unlike any that’s gone before it.

Universities are by their nature highly complex, autonomous, decentralised, fluid and innovative environments, often with many and varied competing priorities, particularly for academics. In this environment, internal relationships are just as critical as external relationships, making internal communications and the demonstration of the value of policy engagement, and the support the function can offer in this engagement, core parts of our strategic approach at Warwick.

Looking back on the last 12 months, I realise that whilst much has been achieved in laying some of the core foundations for the University’s policy engagement function, we’re still at the start of our engagement journey and like others, we’re facing a long and winding path ahead of us. And here at Warwick, we’re ready to step in and help to build a new path wherever one doesn’t currently exist…

 Author: Dr Rachel Hayward, Head of Government Affairs at the University of Warwick
Author: Dr Rachel Hayward, Head of Government Affairs at the University of Warwick

Dr Rachel Hayward is Head of Government Affairs at the University of Warwick.


Posted 09/07/2019 14:57

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