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How to succeed at policy engagement, part one: define your purpose

In the first of her series on policy engagement, Jo Clift provides guidance on the importance of knowing what you’re trying to achieve in order to succeed

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Jo Clift Consulting
21 Mar 2023
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Elevator pitch and policy engagement with your research

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I want to get promoted. I want to provide a good plan for policy engagement on this grant bid so I win the funding. I want to tell the government what they are getting wrong. These are all reasons I have been given when I ask what academics are trying to achieve through their policy engagement. I don’t want to sound harsh, but these are not really policy engagement objectives in the pure sense of the word. I recognise that much of the impetus for policy engagement comes from the pressure of demonstrating impact, or fulfilling the criteria of a grant application, but in reality, it is both a more philosophical and a more practical question.

First of all, let’s clarify our terms. Policy is the decision/s or intention/s of an institution or body. While most of my work is focused on national public policy, policy exists at all levels of granularity. At a household level, for example, you probably have a policy (stated intent/decision) on which supermarket you go to.

Policy engagement involves creating a bridge between those making policy decisions (government, parliament and so on) and those interested parties, including academia, who have useful knowledge to bring to the process.

When it comes to succeeding at policy engagement, I find that a good place to start is:

What is your purpose?

By which I mean, what is your mission, goal or objective for engaging with policy?

Of course, if your engagement goes well, you will raise your profile and the profile of your work (and your institution), but what are you actually trying to achieve?

Are you trying to get your issue on the map with opinion formers? Are you convinced that your work indicates that a simple change to policy could elicit a better outcome (and for whom)? Are you worried that a bill going through parliament will stop progress within your area of focus?

One way of approaching this question is: what would you like your legacy to be? This sounds very grand, but it is a good way of focusing the mind. For example, if we met in five to 10 years, what would you really like to report that you had changed/moved the needle on/influenced?

That is your mission and purpose when it comes to policy engagement.

Perhaps you think that it’s fundamental that, for example, NICE (the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) changes some of its guidelines. Well, these guidelines often change on a seven-year cycle: you would need to marshal your forces well in advance and be persistent and clever in your approaches. Even then, there’s many a slip possible. I know someone who was on the committee for the relevant NICE guidance in their area of research and still didn’t manage to get the change they wanted, because when the earlier consultation document was drafted it excluded the type of change that she was campaigning for.

Thinking big picture can be hard, so it can be easier to think of short-, medium- and long-term goals, and to introduce some realism and pragmatism to the situation. Your lifetime policy goal might be that legislation is brought in to change something fundamental in your area of research. Your medium-term goal might be to convince the relevant stakeholders that change is needed, and your short-term goal might be to build your network so you can have these conversations and establish a dialogue with the right institutions and individuals. Your short- to medium-term goal could be as simple as raising your profile, the profile of your work and establishing a network with two to three relevant bodies/people. You might want a particular group/committee/policy team to simply recognise the issue as relevant and worth considering. The point is that if you don’t know why you are trying to raise your profile in policy terms, then it all becomes a bit circular, dry and more of an uphill battle for everyone.

One way of focusing your mind is to engage with this thought experiment: you are stuck in a lift for a few minutes with the relevant secretary of state, for health/transport/etc – what would you say? What would your pitch be? How would you articulate the change that you want to see, clearly and quickly, and spell out what they could do to alleviate the problem? How would you get them onside? Would you remember to spend at least one of those minutes listening to how the problem looks from the government’s perspective? Would you be able to articulate your purpose – in plain English, not academic speak – to someone who is not an expert in your area?

To summarise, here are some questions to think about when engaging with policy:

− What am I up to?

− What is my long-term goal?

− What is my elevator pitch?

− What are some realistic medium- and short-term objectives/activities?

And finally, try to enjoy the ride. Although government and the policymaking process often appears like a black box from the outside, many academics find that once they have made a couple of contacts and established a dialogue with some interested parties, the whole process of policy engagement can be really enjoyable as well as productive. It really is a series of conversations and interactions with a purpose, and once you have set the ball in motion, things may happen that please and surprise you.

In my next piece in the series on succeeding in policy engagement, I will cover how to understand and map the landscape.

Jo Clift worked at the heart of the UK government for more than 20 years and now works with academics who want to engage with, and influence, policy. She has worked with a number of UK universities including Imperial College London, Goldsmiths, University of London and the University of Plymouth.

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