Ten commandments for influencing policymakers in turbulent times

In a fraught political climate, it is even more difficult than usual for researchers to grab the attention of ministers. Diana Beech imparts her insider’s tips

November 28, 2019
Ten commandments for influencing policymakers in turbulent times
Source: Miles Cole

Having just experienced life in Whitehall as a ministerial adviser, I know very well how hard it is for academics who seek to have their research and ideas picked up by government.

Patience and good communication are imperative, and Nick Hillman’s “The 10 commandments for influencing policymakers”, previously published in Times Higher Education, offers some very useful tips in those areas.

But Nick’s advice dates from the pre-referendum era, when UK politics seemed stable and predictable. I’ve seen first-hand how difficult it has become since then to cut through the ensuing confusion, with Brexit dominating the parliamentary agenda and the government’s majority steadily diminishing.

In a fortnight, the UK will go to the polls in an attempt to reset the parliamentary arithmetic. Yet, we cannot be certain the path ahead will be any smoother. There is every chance that another hung parliament will be left to grapple once again with the big question of EU withdrawal.

So here are a supplementary 10 commandments for engaging with government in times of turbulence:

  1. Get to know the people who really matter. If my time in Whitehall has taught me anything, it’s that ministers come and ministers go. So, as nice as it is to secure a ministerial meeting, I wouldn’t put all your efforts into getting the politicians’ attention. Even though civil servants can also change roles frequently in their careers, during uncertain times it’s officials who provide continuity and ensure your messages don’t fall through the cracks.
  2. Don’t just criticise, offer solutions. For those on the outside, it’s easy to point out flaws in existing policies. Often, policymakers are already aware of these faults and are working hard to correct them. But in times of political crisis, their capacity to refine policy becomes ever more squeezed. The last thing they need is people stating the obvious. Help them identify solutions instead. Be proactive – and be sure to keep ideas short, simple and jargon-free.
  3. Give policymakers a strong narrative. Government departments are home to large swathes of data, so policymakers are rarely short of statistics. What they lack are robust narratives. Officials don’t necessarily have the luxury of conducting structured interviews or focus groups, especially during times of crisis, so will welcome qualitative evidence with open arms. Plus, what politician doesn’t love a good anecdote?
  4. Use social media sparingly. Many politicians manage their own social media accounts, so using an MP’s twitter handle when expressing an idea could be a good way to get on their radar. But be careful not to overuse this route. I’ve seen academics I admire appear an annoyance after incessantly referencing ministers in tweets. Think about the impression you’re making first.
  5. Use ministerial priorities as a hook. At the end of the day, politicians are humans. They each have their own interests and ambitions. Take time to find out what these are from past speeches and op-eds, and use them to tailor your approach. It’s far more likely your correspondence is going to stand out and appeal to a pressured minister if you frame it around something they personally care about.
  6. Keep politics out of it. At a time when politics is increasingly fraught, it can be tempting to be vocal about goings-on in Westminster. But if you seriously seek to engage with a minister – or, indeed, a shadow minister – don’t go publicly criticising their politics, party or leader. You’re far more likely to be listened to if you appear professional and constructive. Departments conduct due diligence checks on everyone ministers meet. So, having aggressive political hashtags on your Twitter profile will not act in your favour.
  7. When ministers change, start again. Let’s assume you’ve secured a meeting with a minister to discuss your research. But weeks before it is due, the minister changes. Don’t assume the meeting will be passed on to the incumbent. Whitehall doesn’t work that way. Each minister starts afresh with a clean diary. So, if you want to meet the new minister, you will have to write to their office all over again.
  8. Treat returning ministers like new ministers. In recent years, ministers have reappeared for a second shot at the job. Traditionally, when a minister’s time in office comes to an end, their departmental inbox gets archived. And even if a minister is reappointed to the same post, they will still get a brand new office email address. So don’t assume the contact details you have will still work.
  9. Don’t overlook the power of constituency MPs. If the relevant minister is preoccupied with “big picture” issues like Brexit, think strategically. If your issue is of local relevance, it may be fruitful to approach your constituency MP first. They can take the cause up on your behalf; if you’re lucky, they may even arrange a meeting with the relevant minister or officials.
  10. Above all, be consistent. If you want government to take your concerns seriously, the worst thing you can do is to say one thing and then do another. For example, it’s no good asking for funding for new research into recycling if you make that request via an expensive, non-recyclable marketing brochure. Consistency counts.

Following these commandments by no means guarantees that you will pass through the eye of the needle into policymaking heaven. But it at least lessens the chances of your forever being stuck in the purgatory of being ignored.

Diana Beech was policy adviser to the past three UK ministers for universities, science, research and innovation. She is now head of government affairs at the University of Warwick.

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