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Julia Kreienkamp

24 January 2023, 1:58 UTC Share

Advising government: navigating complex and fast-paced policy environments

The important role of research in supporting policymaking is increasingly well recognised. This is evident, for example, in the worldwide proliferation of university-based policy engagement bodies over the last decade. However, a new report by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) also highlights an array of obstacles to fruitful engagement between research and policy, including frequent mismatches in timescales, expectations and communications.

In this context, what does it take to become a trusted policy advisor? This question was at the centre of a recent panel debate, hosted by the Institute for Policy Research (IPR), University of Bath, as part of a workshop for students on the IPR Professional Doctorate in Policy Research and Practice (DPRP).

The workshop session brought together a panel of University of Bath academics, including Harry Rutter (Professor of Global Public Health), Carole Mundell (Professor of Extragalactic Astronomy) and the IPR Director Nick Pearce (Professor of Public Policy). Based on their personal experiences of advising the UK government in different capacities, panellists offered reflections on the changing demand for policy advice and the knowledge and skills required to navigate this evolving landscape.

Professor Rutter has provided health-related policy advice in a variety of posts, including as a Senior Strategic Adviser for Public Health England (2012-2020) and as an attendee of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). Professor Mundell has ample experience providing strategic science policy advice and has served as Chief International Science Envoy in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (January to October 2021). Finally, Professor Nick Pearce was Head of the Number 10 Downing Street Policy Unit between 2008 and 2010, where he led and managed a team of advisors to the British Prime Minister.

A changing landscape for policy advice

As the nature and pace of policymaking is changing, so is the demand for policy advice. Policymakers are operating under increasing time pressure and are often asked to respond to ‘wicked’ problems that do not have straightforward right-or-wrong solutions. This has perhaps never been more apparent than during the Covid-19 crisis, when policymakers had to respond rapidly to an evolving situation by taking difficult decisions with significant trade-offs and risks. While science could not provide clear-cut answers – given the many unknowns surrounding the nature and trajectory of the virus – science-based policy advice proved essential to help governments make sense of and respond to these uncertainties.

Covid-19 has also highlighted the importance of trust, particularly in times of crisis. Higher levels of public trust in government may have helped some countries to contain the pandemic more effectively. Clear risk communication based on the best-available science can help generate such trust. In turn, governments will want to work with policy advisors that they find credible and reliable. While a certain level of trust sometimes comes automatically with a particular title or position, ultimately, trust is always a relational asset that is earned over time.

What makes a successful policy advisor?

Drawing on the wealth of their experiences, panellists reflected on what the work of an advisor looks like in practice and offered some guidance for those seeking to gain the ear of policymakers.

  • Offering genuine support: Aspiring policy advisors should be appreciative of the breadth and pace of modern policymaking. Policymakers and civil servants are often operating under great pressure and within tight time and budget constraints, whilst juggling a broad range of issues. In this context, policy advisors seeking to advance their own pet agenda are less likely to be listened to. As Professor Mundell suggested, ‘the best question you can ask is: how can I help?’
  • Understanding context: Policymaking does not happen in a vacuum. Decisions are always taken in a particular institutional environment and are often based on heuristics, meaning policymakers use cognitive shortcuts in response to time and information constraints. This makes it important for policy advisors to familiarise themselves with the institutional culture and environment in which they operate.
  • Providing robust advice: High-quality evidence is grounded in robust research methods that are open to external scrutiny. Policy advice is not simply about conveying knowledge, it also requires transparency on how we come to know things. Importantly, advisors must also clearly communicate the limits of the available evidence. Because science can be messy and politics always implies choices between different claims to the public interest, it is impossible for policy to be ‘fully science-led.’ However, this does not diminish the importance of scrutinising competing claims on the basis of the best-available evidence to facilitate informed (if not always perfect) decisions.
  • Asking good questions: Policy advice is not all about providing answers. Asking good questions can be equally valuable. Questions can help focus attention, initiate more meaningful conversations, bring important evidence gaps to light, or challenge the underlying assumptions policymakers (and advisors) bring to the table.
  • Building a diverse skill set: To become a policy advisor, there is no single defined pathway to follow. Beyond their own subject expertise, successful policy advisors bring a range of ‘soft skills’ to the table (critical thinking, communication and networking skills, agility, …) that can be acquired in a diversity of settings and roles. The panellists also emphasised that there is demand for both specialist and generalist policy advice. Indeed, as Professor Rutter quipped, ‘being a generalist can be a specialism.’
  • Working with others: In some cases, individual policymaker can be extremely influential. For example, former UK Chief Scientific Advisor Sir David King (2000 to 2007) has been credited with playing a key role in establishing climate change as a high-level concern across different policy areas and government departments. But even well-established policy advisors need to work with and learn from others to deliver robust recommendations, especially in situations where the evidence base and/or the situation on the ground is constantly evolving.

Research and policy: a two-way relationship

While being a policy advisor can be demanding and stressful, especially when responding to complex emergencies, all speakers emphasised that their experiences had been highly rewarding. In addition to providing an opportunity to help shape and improve public policies, advisors gain unique insights into how governments work. Generally speaking, panellists found that policymakers were receptive to robust and relevant advice. Whilst it can be difficult to challenge path-dependent or ideologically informed thinking, most politicians and policymakers want to get things right and/or avoid public embarrassment and are therefore genuinely interested in external expertise.

As a final reflection, Professor Pearce highlighted the importance of considering how policy-relevant research is supported. ‘Policy-based evidence making’ is frequently used as a pejorative term, describing a situation in which evidence is fabricated or construed in a way that supports pre-conceived policies. Professor Pearce offered an alternative interpretation, highlighting the importance in a democracy of researching unmet societal needs, bringing marginal issues into the mainstream, and supporting democratically determined priorities, for example on the Net Zero transition. As such, we need to ask not only what research can do for policy but also what policy can do for research: What kind of research do we need and what kind of evidence do we want to develop? A thriving research ecosystem that encourages critical thinking and diversity of thought across and beyond disciplinary boundaries ultimately provides the essential underpinnings for high quality policy advice and evidence-informed policymaking.

The IPR’s Professional Doctorate in Policy Research and Practice (DPRP) enables experienced professionals working across a range of policy arenas to enhance their expertise on the theories, methods and practices of policymaking without having to take a full career break. To find out more, visit the IPR website.

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