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Jenny Bird

03 August 2021, 4:11 UTC Share

Avoiding one-size-fits-all: a tool for tailoring policy engagement

How can policy intermediaries help researchers to take a more strategic approach to policy engagement? Jenny Bird shares one idea that might help avoid a one-size-fits-all approach to policy engagement.

Policy engagement can be a daunting experience, especially for researchers who are trying it for the first time. There are so many different routes to engagement and so many stakeholders involved in policymaking that knowing where to start can be a challenge.

Although there is lots of policy engagement advice available, much of it is very general and takes a one-size-fits-all approach. UCL Engineering’s Policy Impact Unit has developed a framework to help researchers think more strategically about how to approach policy engagement. It draws on insights from campaigning group E3G and the Institute for Government and combines the policy funnel with what we know about how research evidence is used at each stage in the policy process. The usual caveats apply of course – in reality, the policymaking process is messy and non-linear – but we hope it could be useful in clarifying how different types of research might be used and in deciding which route to engagement to select.

1. Agenda Setting

This phase concerns issues, ideas and innovations that are not yet part of the policy discussion. Agenda setting occurs at the widest part of the policy funnel, meaning there is greatest scope for affecting the direction of policy and lots of options when considering which tools to utilise. The goal is to try to raise awareness of the issue and to start a public debate. Working with policymakers involved in horizon scanning (such as GO-Science and POST) can be very useful. Another route is to seek out agenda-setting organisations (such as think tanks or campaigning organisations) and share your research with them. Media coverage is also a good way to raise the profile of new innovations and ideas.

2. Problem Definition

Once it is clear that an issue is important, there is often a period of public debate. At this stage, the terms are often still fluid and there may be competition to ‘frame’ the agenda according to different values or to align with political goals.

Securing media coverage can be a very effective way to contribute at this stage of the policy process, as can working with relevant ‘thought leaders’ (high profile individuals with influence in the sector). Another tactic is to identify politicians from across the political spectrum with a strong interest in the subject area and to suggest ways in which they might raise the issue, for example through parliamentary questions or in relevant debates.

3. Solutions – Developing Policy Options and Designing Policy

The next phase is to consider what potential solutions might look like. At this stage, evidence of ‘what works’ is particularly useful, such as examples from other countries or historical experiences. Modelling of the economic, social and environmental impacts of different options is often useful and behavioural sciences might come into play in thinking about how people would respond to different scenarios.

At this point of the policy funnel, the debate tends to narrow to a more in-depth and detailed discussion, typically between specialist policymakers, experts, practitioners and special interest groups. For researchers trying to inform the debate, finding the team of civil servants who are responsible for developing the policy and sharing your research with them is one of the fastest ways to impact. For ‘issue advocates’, another route is to work with campaigning groups who share your goals.

4.Taking a Decision (Passing Legislation, Approving Funding)

At the formal decision-making part of the process, changes tend to be small and detailed rather than high-level and broad. It helps to have an understanding of the legislative process that you are trying to influence (or to find someone who can help you with this). In the UK, engagement might look like submitting evidence to a Bill Committee or suggesting amendments that could be tabled during a debate as the Bill passes through Parliament.

5. Implementation

The implementation stage is where policy becomes real. Whatever the policy, somebody somewhere is going to have to do something differently and policymakers will have to consider who is best placed to deliver the desired changes. Evidence that helps policymakers to understand the real-world experience of citizens and end-users can be particularly useful. Where pilot studies and trials are being run, there can be a role for researchers in helping to evaluate these schemes. Routes to engagement might include responding to consultations, bidding for evaluation contracts or through established relationships with the relevant civil servants. The other key audience, of course, are the organisations or people who will be affected by the policy.

6. Evaluation

Understanding whether policies have delivered on their intended goals (and if not, why not) is essential for better policymaking. The Government often commissions policy evaluations, so an obvious way that academics can contribute is to bid to deliver an evaluation directly. Another route is to contribute to consultations carried out as part of Government-led reviews of policy. Parliament’s role in scrutinising policy is also an important part of the picture. Academics can contribute by responding to calls for evidence from Parliamentary Select Committees.

What do you think?

We hope that this framework will be a useful tool for researchers who are setting out on the journey of policy engagement. We would welcome feedback in the comments on whether it is helpful or not. We’d also love to hear from other policy-research intermediaries and knowledge brokers on other approaches that can help to avoid the one-size-fits-all advice trap.

Further Reading

Jenny Bird is Head of the Policy Impact Unit in UCL’s Faculty of Engineering Sciences. Her major interest is improving engagement at the policy-research interface in order to deliver more evidence-informed policymaking. Jenny has previously worked as a Senior Specialist in the House of Commons and as a Research Fellow for the IPPR think tank.

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