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Raising the bar in policy engagement

Universities contribute to public policy at all levels. Jeremy Swan introduces us to the work of the modern public affairs team.
This article is more than 3 years old

Jeremy Swan works as a Public Affairs Manager (Policy Impact) for the University of Birmingham.

The growth in university public affairs teams has been notable in recent years. Driven primarily by the REF and increased political attention on the sector, many universities have looked to beef up their capabilities. How this works in practice varies by institution, but the effect is the same: policy impact has gone professional.

Now, striving for success in quality measures and helping to shape higher education policy are, most definitely, worthwhile activities. But there’s also a wider point here about the role universities have in shaping and informing political debate. In a world of fake news, alternative facts and uncompromising politics, surely now is the time to up our game.

The question is, how do we do that?

Not enough hours in the day

In my experience, the most significant limiting factor is time. Many opportunities have a short shelf life, so you need to be prepared to move quickly to have an impact. At the heart of the problem is the fact that universities and policy institutions work to different timescales.

In one sense, this is an unavoidable fact of life. Civil servants who are given tight deadlines by their ministers are more likely to reach out to academics whom they already know and trust. Similarly, political staffers and officials in the Commons and Lords libraries are often working against the clock to provide briefings for parliamentarians and so it’s understandable if they also rely on existing networks and Google, instead of consulting more widely. In Whitehall and Westminster, time is short and priorities can quickly change.

One way to counter this, from a university perspective, is to move away from simply responding to the short term political agenda. Instead, we should become more involved in shaping policies from the outset when time pressures are less of an issue. There are a number of ways to do this, but common routes include writing policy reports, responding to Green Papers or working with the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. Yet it must be stressed that this approach requires commitment and an understanding that dramatic results aren’t likely to happen overnight.

However much we try to get on the front foot, though, there will inevitably be opportunities that come up at short notice. We should therefore look to make our research more accessible through providing online resources and encouraging open access publishing. We can also focus on becoming more agile institutions, able to respond quickly and effectively. The creation of in-house public affairs teams across the sector has certainly helped, but I think we’re just starting to realise the benefits. Over time, the effectiveness of these teams will increase as we become more established and learn ‘what works’ when it comes to government relations.

Where are the incentives?

Policy engagement activities come with an opportunity cost; to get involved you have to decide what else you will deprioritise. Marking? Grant writing? Research? Public outreach? Sleep? If we are to encourage more academics to get involved in policy then we need to convince them that it is worth doing.

According to a national study by Dr Danielle Beswick, one of my colleagues in Birmingham, many academics feel that policy engagement is not adequately recognised in workload models or career progression discussions. Only 60% of survey respondents agreed that contributing evidence to a parliamentary inquiry was seen as a prestigious thing by their institution.

Clearly, we need to get better at recognising and rewarding staff for their contributions to public policy.

Developing a culture of engagement

As policy brokers, our job is to look ahead for new opportunities, identify the right people to respond and then advise on the best engagement approach. We’re naturally set up to work across silos, and this collaborative approach pays dividends. Some of the best campaigns I’ve worked on have involved academic and professional services teams working in step.

This kind of synergy isn’t always easy to achieve in large and complex organisations, such as universities. But if we want to raise our game then we need to get better at overcoming the barriers between teams. Set shared goals, plan together and talk often.

We also need to raise the level of “policy literacy” across our institutions. For some academics, policy engagement is a well-trodden path. Working in the public affairs team at the University of Birmingham, I interact daily with people who have become comfortable operating in this space, representing a wide range of disciplines.

But there is definitely scope for more widespread engagement. We need to empower more staff to get involved by showcasing role models and providing training, so that people have the skills – or know where to find help – to engage in a meaningful way. Knowing how parliament works, how to influence decisions, how to communicate expertise effectively – these are skills that can, and should, be taught more widely.

One response to “Raising the bar in policy engagement

  1. As someone whose work is associated with Parliamentary scrutiny (not Westminster) it is relatively easy to get the University’s Corporate Body view on a particular policy.

    If you want to engage with the academy however, for an independent scholarly view on a policy, it is much, much harder to get engagement or to even find out who is best to ask. The institutions best at what you talk about headhunt relevant staff, send potted academic CVs and generally help you navigate that space – in short they make the introductions. A simple enough concept but enormously helpful!

    The final challenge can then sometimes be getting the engagement from academic staff after you’ve been introduced. That’s a tougher nut to crack for some institutions I can understand that.

    University’s (depending on their research portfolio) potentially have an awful lot to give in this area. It seems a complete no-brainer for civic mission / engagement stuff. An easy win. Although as you say don’t expect dramatic results (but they can happen).

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