“Policy shops” are fast becoming a must-have adjunct for the contemporary university.
The University of Nottingham’s new Institute for Policy and Engagement is being added to a list that includes the King’s Policy Institute, The Bennett Institute and CSAP in Cambridge, Policy@Manchester, Policy Scotland in Glasgow, the Wales Centre for Public Policy in Cardiff, UCL Public Policy, the IPR at Bath. There is even a national network – the Universities Policy Engagement Network.
It would be easy to see the rise of the policy shop as simply a response to the Research Excellence Framework (REF). Clearly the REF is a driver. It rewards impact increasingly generously, determining 20 per cent of outcomes in 2014, rising to 25 per cent in 2021, and the majority of case studies in 2014 involved policy impact in some form or other. So of course universities are going to invest in this space. They would be daft not to.
But what is interesting is how many of these new policy shops have ambitions and missions that extend far beyond the REF. This reflects the fact that – not surprisingly – translation of research into policy is of value in itself, not just because government encourages it. And it also reflects the fact that impact requires work. It is not simply a case of publish it and they will come.
There are three factors involved here. The first of these is improving supply. This has probably received the most attention, with impact blogs full of top ten tips on presenting research to policymakers. I have written at least two. This is all perfectly rational: in thinking about tackling any problem, it makes sense first to concentrate on the factors in your control. In our case that is the supply of evidence.
So we rightly spend time polishing our message, preparing our elevator pitch and our crisp, jargon-free two page policy brief. A common characteristic of academics, as well as think tanks, lobby groups and others who are effective in shaping policy, is that they understand how to present evidence in a way that is easily digested. Or in some cases, inversely correlated with funding transparency, making something that bears the outward appearance of evidence easily digested.
Demand matters too
However there is a danger in thinking that the key to stimulating demand is the quality of supply. That is to misunderstand the nature of the demand side, and what it means to make policy. While good evidence is a necessary condition for good policy, it isn’t sufficient. Policymakers and their advisors make policy decisions by synthesising evidence with a range of factors: resources (cash, people, time), consistency with other policies, coherence with core values and political mandate, deliverability, parliamentary arithmetic and public acceptability.
This means the mark of a good policy decision is not just fidelity to the evidence. Good politics is as vital a component of good policy as good evidence. Understanding the demand side means understanding that politics isn’t something that distorts policy, but is the means to deliver it. This is obvious to those that study policymaking, but not at all obvious to many academics who see it as a black box.
As a policymaker the most useful advice recognises the political environment and constraints that places on decision makers. This isn’t to say that advice should take these constraints as a given, and that we should only ever aim at things that sit in the Overton window. However it is to recognise that it will take more than simply shouting “but the evidence!” to help policymakers move beyond it.
Which leads to a third aspect, which is every bit as important as the first two: engaging the public as well as policymakers. Politicians and policymakers rely on public consent, either directly or indirectly. The solutions to the wicked challenges we face – climate emergency, an ageing population, rising poverty – demand a lot of all of us, perhaps financially, or losing things we enjoy or rely on. The evidence might be crystal clear and the case compelling, but it is a brave politician who risks their whole mandate for an issue where they don’t think they have public support. A sceptical public, who does not hold politicians in high regard, is unlikely to be inclined to make sacrifices simply because it is told to do so.
So public engagement is a vital complement to engaging directly with policy makers if we want to have impact, especially where acting on evidence means moving the constraints on what is politically feasible. Surveys show we are trusted, and while we should not be naïve about the extent to which our expertise and authority alone will persuade people to do difficult things, we know that the best public engagement can generate agency and commitment to change as well as understanding.
Through engagement we can provide policymakers not just with evidence – but also make it easier for politicians to be brave by shifting the window of possible actions.