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Charlotte Humma

21 March 2019, 4:56 UTC Share

It’s not all plain sailing: providing navigation on Post-Brexit trade policy

There is (probably) no greater nor more topical example of the complexity of policymaking than Brexit. As has been evident over the last two years – which culminated in a fascinating series of Parliamentary votes last week – policymaking is far from a discrete one-off decision, but rather a complex non-linear process that involves a multitude of actors and forces, both inside and outside Parliament, operating at multiple levels. 

Whilst recognising that “Research that is relevant, credible, and independent is essential for good scrutiny and debate” (UK Parliament, 2018, p1) and with REF defining impact as “as an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy ….” (REF 2021, 2019, p.68), Research England obviously expects some academics to be engaging in policy processes, but how to achieve such policy impact is not clear cut. 

Despite a wealth of ‘how to’ advice and tips, “there are few empirical evaluations of strategies to enable academics to create impact” (Oliver & Cairney, 2019, p7). There are even practical reasons not to share knowledge on influencing activities, as Jones notes:
“Influencing work is often unique, rarely repeated or replicated and, even worse, there are incentives against the sharing of ‘good practice’. If one lobby found, for example, some kind of ‘magic bullet’ to influence policy, it would be nullified if they shared the technique publically.” (ODI, 2011, p3).

However, this is something the Universities Policy Engagement Network (UPEN) aims to address. UPEN is a network of UK universities who are working together – sharing examples, experience and best practice – to increase the public policy impact from their research.

One such example can be found at the University of Sussex, where the UK Trade Policy Observatory (UKTPO) was set up just days after the EU referendum result.

Back in June 2016, when the UK voted to leave the EU, it was evident to Professor L. Alan Winters that the University of Sussex – which comprises the largest academic group studying international trade in the UK – was perfectly placed to respond to the new national need for trade expertise to inform and shape UK trade policy, for Brexit and beyond. 

The UKTPO provides fact-based, objective analysis of trade policy, producing a range of research and published materials. Influencing UK trade policy is the raison d’Ä™tre of the Observatory and it has developed a strategy, structure and processes to integrate and generate research impact. 

So how does the UKTPO navigate the political whirlpool that is Brexit?

• Firstly, the UKTPO is based on a multi-level theory of change. Whilst the Observatory strives to input directly into policymaking, there are limited opportunities for direct engagement with key policymakers (even though there has been quite a lot of them!). Given that “there are many policymakers and other actors involved who have the ability to influence the [policy] process,” a main pathway to impact is to engage with those who scrutinise government and can influence policy through Parliament, unions and the media, as well as to work with those who are directly affected by trade policy (Cairney, 2016). 

• The second is that our approach to engagement has been two-way and collaborative; this has built trust with key stakeholders, developed networks and thus expanded the Observatory’s sphere of influence and sources of knowledge.

• Thirdly, the Observatory’s commitment to impact is evidenced through its consistent series of publications for non-academic audiences in the form of short, user-friendly briefing papers, blogs, animated videos and media contributions, dissemination events, and sustained private engagement across a wide range of stakeholders. 

• Finally, the UKTPO is a large and interdisciplinary group. This allows us to have breadth and depth on trade policy topics and respond agilely to requests for meetings, expertise, trainings, media commentary, oral evidence, etc.

This approach to impact generation has allowed the UKTPO to be proactive and reactive, work publicly and privately, and engage with multiple stakeholders. 

So, have we been successful? 

As yet, it is impossible to calibrate the UKTPO’s impact on policy, given the huge volume of other commentary, Government sensitivities over the decision-making process and current status of Brexit. However, the Observatory has published a significant amount of research and analysis, gaining a media audience reach of 60 million annually and several Parliamentary mentions and citations. The work of the Observatory has provided early discussion and sound analysis of several important decisions that the Government has taken, such as rectification with the WTO and the need to join the GPA, the necessity of a transitional period, trade with developing countries, the economic impact of Brexit, the Customs Union and customs arrangements. Subsequently, the Observatory has become the ‘go-to’ organisation for trade policy expertise, informing and assisting multiple actors to navigate trade policy.

Brexit is the greatest political and certainly the largest administrative shock that the UK has experienced in several generations and uncoupling the UK from the European Union after 44 years affects almost every aspect of our lives. Whilst “actions by policymakers and private companies are seldom causally hardwired to any one event but result from multiple input and complex quasi-(causational) paths” (Hyysalo et al, 2019, p11) the UKTPO’s genuine interdisciplinary expertise on international and European trade, experience of the policy world, significant number of academics and support staff, communications and engagement programme, and great team spirit has enabled it to claim a space in the UK trade policy arena. 

Charlotte Humma is Research Communications Manager at the University of Sussex Business School and Business Manager for the UK Trade Policy Observatory. 


Cairney, P. (2016) The Politics of Evidence-Based Policy Making Palgrave Macmillan

Hyysalo, S., Lukkarinen, J., Kivimaa, P., Lovio, R., Temmes, A., Hildén, M., Marttila, T., Auvinen, K., Perikangas, S., Pyhälammi, A., Peljo, J., Savolainen, K., Hakkarainen, L., Rask, M., Matschoss, K., Huomo, T., Berg, A. and Pantsar, M (2019) Developing policy pathways: redesigning transition arenas for mid-range planning. Sustainability, 11 (3). 603 1-22. ISSN 2071-1050 Available at:

Jones, H (2011) A guide to monitoring and evaluating policy influence, ODI Background Note. Available at:  ;

Oliver, K and Cairney, P (2019) The dos and don’ts of influencing policy: a systematic review of advice to academics Palgrave Communications 5: 21 Available at:

REF Guidance on submissions (2019)  ;

UK Parliament and Devolved Administrations Briefing Note (2018) Research Impact and Legislatures Available at: Impact in Legislatures_FINAL 2.pdf

Author: Charlotte Humma, Research Communications Manager at the University of Sussex Business School and Business Manager for the UK Trade Policy Observatory 

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