five tips for early career researchers who want to engage with government - Dr Faith Gordon
In Spring 2016 I was fortunate to obtain a place on the AHRC course, ‘Engaging with Government’, at the Institute for Government, London—the hub of all things ‘government and policy effectiveness’ wise.
The exceptionally-run course was chiefly facilitated by Jill Rutter and Katie Thorpe, and included a range of expert guest speakers from government, NGOs and academia. I found the practical exercises really effective—in particular, pitching our research and learning from the constructive feedback. It’s clear that civil servants, MPs and NGOs are willing to engage with academic research, however their time is limited. As researchers we must present our research in simple terms and providing solutions are key—it’s not enough to identify a problem that needs to be addressed, people want to know your informed suggestions on how to solve problems!
We learned so much during the course, so it has been difficult to choose ‘Top Tips’ from the wealth of information, but below are five of the ‘Top Tips’ that I will be reflecting on in developing my own work:
- 1. Find routes to engagement
Two key points were made: firstly the importance of understanding the landscape of government and policymaking; and secondly, the importance of identifying contacts in government and building relationships.
Learn to identify who are: a) the influencers; b) the decision makers; c) the implementers.
Mapping out our network is a really useful exercise in flagging up or reminding ourselves of the contacts we already have formed!
We were also introduced to Sarah Foxen’s fantastic chart (link below) which outlines ‘8 ways research gets into Parliament’ and ‘8 ways you could get your research into Parliament’:
- 1. Through the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology
- 2. Through Commons and Lords Select Committee Inquiries
- 3. Through All-Party Parliamentary Groups
- 4. Through Political Researchers
- 5. Through Direct Correspondence and Engagements with MPs and Peers
- 6. Through Commons Debate Packs
- 7. Through Commons Research Briefing and Lords Library Notes
- 8. Through Commons Library Responses to MPs Questions
- 2. Build your profile
The course taught us the importance of building up our network offline and online. This includes ensuring that we have an effective ‘digital’ online profile.
We learned how much of a reliance there is on Google by civil servants and researchers in Parliament. It’s therefore important to make sure that you feature on the first page of Google search results, and when writing blog pieces ensure that the core ‘buzz words’ are present.
We were encouraged to set up our own blog (via WordPress for example), and to keep our Twitter content active and relevant. Personalising your blog with a photograph is also a nice personal touch so that people know who you are!
- 3. Develop skills for effective engagement
This includes oral pitches to policymakers and describing the importance of your research to someone who is not familiar with your area of expertise. Be concise, provide simple explanations and inject some person-connection to the work (if one exists!)—stories and examples are said to be a powerful way to connect with policymakers.
Some of the guest speakers recommended attending ‘media training’ courses to develop key skills.
- 4. Triple-writing is the way to go
As a group we discussed the method of ‘triple-writing’, which would ensure that our work could reach the widest possible audience, in formats suitable for a range of needs. Thinking about who the target audience is and the most suitable format is top priority.
Here is an example of triple-writing:
A journal article: aimed at the academic community and written according to the conventions within your discipline. It was highlighted that ‘paywalls’ are often a barrier to policymakers and ‘think tanks’ being able to access our work: open access is an essential means for dissemination.
A briefing paper: this should be 1-3 pages in length, use bullet points and capture the attention of the reader in the first couple of sentences. The language should be simple, to the point and include informed solutions.
A blog piece, social media, press release for mainstream media: these should include a ‘news story’ element of what will ‘sell’ our research message in the sense that it will capture people’s attention and have an impact. Again, keep it simple and to the point.
- 5. Timing is everything
Looking for opportunities, being ready when those opportunities appear and thinking outside of the box. Keeping up-to-date with what the contemporary issues are in our field is a necessity, and regularly familiarising ourselves with the legislative programme, current bills and current special debates and committee inquiries is a good starting point.
And to close: maximising influence and have an impact
One of the guest speakers referred to early career researchers as producing ‘innovative’ and ‘cutting-edge’ research. We need to recognise the contribution our research can make to informing the policymaking process. This will make sure that the best available evidence-base from the research we produce is at the centre of both policy development and implementation.
I would strongly advise all ECRs to apply for the next ‘Engaging with Government’ course. I have learned so much, been so inspired and have made brilliant contacts and friends. I hope to now be an active member of the course alumni. Thanks to the AHRC and the Institute for Government for this great opportunity. Also, watch this space: the tips and advice I received are already being put into action!
Some web links:
Some Twitter links: