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Nathalie Goodsir and Simon Russell

26 August 2021, 4:13 UTC Share

Levelling-up: using the language of the government to maximise policy engagement opportunities

The levelling-up agenda is central to current government policy. This blog considers how researchers can make the most of this.

Though it began as yet another snappy campaign slogan, it is clear that ‘levelling-up’ remains a central theme of the current government’s policy agenda. In a speech in July, the Prime Minister once again reiterated his ‘mission’ to level-up the country. While the keynote address had promised to define and refine this somewhat amorphous vision, talk of ‘magic sauce’, ‘the ketchup of catch-up’ and ‘jam-spreading operations’ may not have provided the desired clarity. However, researchers and policy engagement experts can, and should, respond to the situation at hand – even a large-scale governmental vision still short on substance can present opportunities.

In our recent discussions with policymakers, it is clear that this agenda is determining priorities and informing policy decisions and it’s up to us to make the most of this. At a time when officials and politicians alike are looking for tangible examples of how big vision promises will make a positive difference, recognising how we can support their ambition offers the prospect of effective engagement. It has always been the case that policy engagement is most successful when research themes can be communicated using the language policymakers will understand and find compelling. The ‘levelling-up agenda’ is the latest example of this.

Our work to support academic colleagues in this is one of the many ways in which of policy engagement professionals demonstrate our value, given:

  1. Our skill at recognising where research and institutional capability intersect with current policy priorities.
  2. Our ability to translate from the language familiar to academics to that used by policymakers and vice versa.
  3. Our insight, via Horizon Scanning, means we know what the present priorities are and how they might develop or shift over time so that the effort expended is both relevant and timely.

If evidence were needed of how wide-ranging ‘levelling-up’ is within government, this is clear from the ongoing departmental consultations in several departments including BEIS. It also features as a joint priority outcome for BEIS, DfE, DfT, DWP, DCMS, Defra, DIT and MHCLG in all their Outcome Delivery Plans for 2021-22. Not only does this highlight the agenda’s importance, but also, its multi-disciplinary potential.

We all recognise the benefits of the Areas of Research Interest (ARIs), and how this informs engagement with government. Using the language of the levelling-up agenda, and its wide-ranging scope when engaging with policymakers should also provide opportunities.

The recent UPEN survey identified that 42% of respondents lacked knowledge of the processes for engagement like parliamentary committees. Clearly this will reduce their chances of success. It is just as likely, in our view, that not being aware of the current policy priorities or, more probably, being unable to adequately translate research and capability so as to be accessible and clearly aligned with the Government’s priorities will also significantly diminish the chances of successful engagement.

Clearly a big part of this is being able to spot where research and capability intersect with policy priorities. Another element, as is the case with ‘levelling-up’, is recognising where a lack of clarity might allow colleagues to position something as a tangible and compelling example of the vision being delivered – though only if the alignment claimed is credible and authentic.

This has to be better than waiting for detail that may never emerge or standing back while others pick up the conversation and bring clarity and form where it does not exist presently.

Nathalie Goodsir and Simon Russell both work for PolicyBristol, the policy engagement team at the University of Bristol. Nathalie is the PolicyBristol coordinator, and Simon is the Associate for Science and Engineering.

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