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Justin Fisher

27 April 2021, 4:30 UTC Share

Tips for influencing policy: Why it requires a slightly different way of working

Justin Fisher is Professor of Political Science and Director of Brunel Public Policy at Brunel University London. In this blog he looks at how engaging with policy-makers and legislators is hugely rewarding, but requires a slightly different way of working.

Several years ago, I became what I’d always feared I might – a ‘television shouter’, venting my spleen when politicians and political commentators were proceeding without apparently having read my latest article. Something had to give and I began submitting evidence to select committees based on my research.

I’ve found it enormously rewarding and satisfying to do this, but it usually requires a particular way of working, which may be different from what many of us are familiar. In this blog, I outline some of the lessons I’ve learned, which I hope will be helpful. Fundamentally, there is a clear message – our research can make a very positive contribution to policy, legislation and public life more generally, and politicians and policy-makers really value the research-led insights that we can provide . But to do this effectively, we have to approach things slightly differently.

The first point to make is that you can be both pro-active and re-active. The latter is more common – reacting to policy consultations, select committee enquiries etc – but both share a similar consideration, namely that insights may be more likely to be taken on board if they at least acknowledge the constraints under which a department, committee etc is working. Politics and budgets matter – they are always in the background.

I want to focus, here on re-active engagement. If you are responding to an inquiry or a consultation, there are certain important things to bear in mind. They won’t apply 100% of the time, but I’ve found they are a helpful way of approaching things:

  1. Always respond to the questions that are being asked by the committee or the consultations. These may not be the questions you think are the most important, but they are the terms of reference, and the areas in which the consultation or committee are most interested.
  2. Many committees like comparisons. Is there another country, local authority, company or organisation that has tried a solution to the questions in hand? Was it successful? What lessons can be learnt from their experience?
  3. Never waste a good metric. Obviously, not all policy solutions lend themselves to simple measurement. But if you have a metric that illustrates your point – use it.
  4. Research insights from related areas can be really helpful. A few years ago, I was a special advisor on an enquiry regulating lobbying (how topical!). Much of the work I did for the committee was informed by research I’d done on regulating party finance, where the parallels were striking in terms of what worked and what didn’t.
  5. Politics matters. That doesn’t mean existing policies or ideas should not be challenged – they absolutely should. But challenge them rather than rubbish them. This is not an exercise in establishing intellectual supremacy; it’s one of trying to improve policy and outcomes.
  6. If you do manage to persuade policy-makers and politicians to make a change, that change is likely to be relatively small. But that is still a really important improvement.
  7. One technique I’ve often used is to show why Doing Nothing may be a bad or a good option. In other words, it’s much more persuasive to show that your idea is worth adopting if you can demonstrate why the current state of play produces less in the way of positive outcomes. Equally, making no change can sometimes be the best achievable outcome, even if there are problems with the status quo.
  8. Feasibility matters – show not only why your idea is good, but also what would be needed to deliver it.

Of course, none of this is a sure-fire route to happiness. I do still occasionally shout at the telly, but these days it’s usually when someone uses the word data in the singular. Such is life!

Justin Fisher is Professor of Political Science and Director of Brunel Public Policy at Brunel University London. He has advised and delivered evidence to government and parliamentary enquiries both domestically and internationally.

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