Why don’t we know what works when engaging with policymakers?

More systematic work is required to learn the lessons of efforts to generate policy impact, says Matthew Flinders

May 23, 2022
A ear on a wall, symbolising the difficulty of communication
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How can academics engage effectively and efficiently with policymakers? Where are the docking points? Do the answers vary at different levels of government or in different policy areas? What are the risks of engagement? And how do we make all processes EDI-aware?

With what some scholars have labelled “the tyranny of impact” having shaped higher education over the past decade, an observer from a distant galaxy might expect a fairly robust evidence base to exist around these questions.

They would be wrong.

This was recently underlined by a major review of initiatives and investments in policy engagement by Katherine Oliver and colleagues. Despite a huge expansion in such activity, the review’s main conclusion was that the evidence base for actual impact remains alarmingly thin. “These initiatives tend not to draw on existing evidence and theory, and are mostly unevaluated,” it warns. “The rudderless mass of activity therefore fails to provide useful lessons for those wishing to improve evidence use, leading to wasted time and resources.”

Translational structures have been built. The Universities Policy Engagement Network, for instance, brings together more than 100 UK universities and supports policy engagement. But the insights of policy analysis, diffusion and evaluation have not generally been applied to the process of research-led policy engagement itself.

The UK’s What Works Network provides a case in point. Across a range of policy areas – ageing, homelessness, well-being, economic growth, youth policy and education – these centres have achieved multiple and far-reaching impacts. Yet their founding rationale, articulated nearly a decade ago, includes an explicit emphasis on using insights, practice and experience – forged at the research-policy nexus – to “upskill” the broader academic community. And in this role they have arguably been less successful. The centres have evolved almost like isolated islands of excellence, whereas a focus on the connective tissue needed to catalyse and drive engagement performance across the science base might have helped direct Oliver’s “rudderless mass of activity”.

The same learning potential is to be found within other major path-breaking investments at the intersection of research and policy. These include UK in a Changing Europe, a scholarly network examining the consequences of Brexit, the International Public Policy Observatory, focused on harnessing global research to help UK policymakers minimise the social harms inflicted by Covid-19, and the Economics Observatory, aimed at providing “balanced and reliable answers to the economic questions that Covid-19 and its aftermath will bring”. And although they are very different organisations, a similar argument could be made for the Institute for Fiscal StudiesInstitute for Government and Institute for Community Studies – but, again, little connective or catalysing capacity exists to extract and scale up and scale out the vast reservoirs of understanding that such initiatives develop about “what works” in policy engagement.

Such mechanisms are also needed to maximise the transformative potential of schemes such as the brilliant new ESRC policy fellowships programme, which allows UK social scientists to spend up to 18 months collaborating with a UK governmental organisation on policy.

Although it is probably the most obvious conclusion for an academic to reach, what is needed is more systematic research. There is, of course, the Research on Research Institute (RoRI), founded on the mantra that “we can’t unlock the full potential of investment in research systems unless we have the evidence and tools to understand them”. But where RoRI focuses on world-leading big data and meta-science to gauge the performance of research systems, understanding policy engagement demands a more qualitative and contextualised approach if the full tone and texture of this endeavour are to be fully captured.

It will be challenging to drive academic culture towards a more socially engaged model, but everyone recognises the imperative. Investing in the science of scientific policy advice has nothing to do with the instrumentalism and game-playing that often surrounds impact activities and everything to do with simply helping policymakers to devise better policies – and, consequently, citizens to lead more fulfilling lives.

Matthew Flinders is professor of politics at the University of Sheffield. He is also vice-president of the Political Studies Association, chair of the Universities Policy Engagement Network and a professorial civic fellow at the Institute for Community Studies at the Young Foundation.


Print headline: What do policymakers want?

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Reader's comments (1)

Policy and scholarship tend to connect when there are ideological similarities and carrots available in my field. There's rarely an interest in scholarship for its own sake from policymakers. There are a quite a few academics providing 'impact' work without any substantial scholarship to back it up on their part. They want influence without anything innovative to offer. Call it 'policyship'. It's a dubious agenda, based on weak ethics and dubious methods. It all needs work, but how do you get over the power/ ideology hurdle?