Improving academic and policy-maker relationships

Academics may provide input to government policies and programs and may at some stage in their careers seek a government job. This raises a couple of points: how can academics and public servants improve how they work together; and what might academics need to do to increase their chances of winning a public service job?

Two reports from the UK’s Institute of Government provide some useful ideas that can help both academics and public servants. While written for the civil service, many of the suggestions apply in Australia. These reports are:

Recognise the value of academics

The authors point out that academics offer “deep knowledge, expertise and research that can help inform, design, improve, test and scrutinise government policy.” Academics’ contributions to policy include expertise (advice based on knowledge of a field); evidence (facts and information); expertise in new methodologies; can act as independent critics either formally such as on academic panels for specific projects, and informally, when officials contact academics to test their thinking; and can review policy impact, evaluate policy and offer a source of institutional memory of past policy.

An academic needs to seek out and then record these contributions for inclusion on their CV.

Difficulties for policy officials

The authors outline how working with academics involves several difficulties. They include:

  • Not having the time and resources to build networks and engage with academics.
  • Difficulties in finding relevant research and identifying relevant academics.
  • Lack of incentive to seek out academic evidence and expertise.
  • Lack of tools to easily access academic research and advice.
  • No one with clear responsibility for how officials engage with academics and use evidence and expertise.
  • A divide between departmental analysts (economists, social and operational researchers and statisticians) and policy officials, resulting in knowledge and information that analysts have access to do not making it into policy.
  • High staff turnover and weak institutional memory resulting in officials being unable to develop understanding of a policy area or unable to access the evidence that informed past policy.
  • Departments not learning from and replicating lessons from successful initiatives that connect academics with policy making, with little coordination across government.

So what are the implications for public servants working in policy who need to engage with academic stakeholders?

The authors suggest that departments need to create an ‘expert network’ to help officials find relevant academics. While you may not be in a position to take this action, you could identify if the idea might be useful and take steps to gain support. You could also create your own local expert network by coordinating across teams and branches.

The authors suggest developing ‘induction schemes’ for policy officials new to a policy area. This may mean working with universities as well as other policy areas.

Check if there is clear responsibility for how you are meant to engage with academics and for the quality of the evidence and expertise used in policy. If there isn’t, take steps to win support for the idea.

Examine the relationship between analysts and policy staff in your department. Build relationships with analysts and invite sharing networks. Encourage cooperation in sharing evidence and expert contacts, and invite analysts to be involved in policy making.

Develop a good understanding of what analysts do and how it relates to policy-making.

If you’re new to a policy area, then what’s critical is to quickly understand the key issues, identify the main stakeholders, and have some grasp of what the evidence says, who the relevant experts are and what previous policy has been. This may not be easy if inductions are limited, institutional memory is poor, and access to experts is limited.

Since high staff turnover also creates problems for academics trying to engage with

government departments, part of your role is it establish new relationships quickly.

What are the implications for academics?

Gain an understanding of the policy making process.

The Institute for Government points out that policy making is messy and doesn’t follow the linear, rational ROAMEF model set out in the UK Treasury’s Green Book. This model identifies a cycle of elements – Rationale, Objectives, Appraisal, Monitoring, Evaluation and Feedback. Rather, they say policy is created “through a complex interaction of ministerial priorities, public attitudes, media, civil service capacity and other factors – in addition to evidence and expertise. Policy officials act as ‘ringmasters’, pulling together input from these multiple sources.”

While basing policy on evidence may seem self-evident, it is not a straight-forward process, as outlined in the APSC’s material on Challenges of evidence-based policy-making. The idea of a policy cycle is somewhat contentious and is, as Bridgman and Davis point out, “an ideal type from which every reality will curve away.” Further, they argue, “It is designed to answer the daunting question ‘what do I do now?’ Followed, a policy cycle might assist a public servant move from vague problem to authoritative government deliberation.”

Academics need to understand the policy making process and identify where and how they can make contact with relevant officials.

Politics can’t be ignored

The impact of politics varies across policy areas. Some policy areas are highly contentious, while others are less-contested, making it easier to engage expert advice. In more contested areas where there is a high level of political interest, evidence and expertise may be affected by values, interest groups and what is regarded as politically acceptable.

Think about how contentious your area is. Know what the government’s policy position is, as well as those of other political parties.

Evidence can enter the policy cycle via various routes

Academic evidence can reach policy indirectly via think tanks, non-governmental organisations, media organisations and consultancies. Some organisations may work with academics to package evidence in ways designed to influence policy makers. These ‘brokers’ are no substitute for working directly with academics.

Track policies and identify what evidence has been used to support them. If you work with other organisations who use your research, think about how it is being used. Find out how your university enables people to locate and access expertise. Analyse how you are represented online and judge whether it invites access to your expertise.

What can also help your academic career as well as provide useful experience for any future transition to the public service, is to seek out policy-related experience. Based on the reports, this covers:

  • Expert networks, including those created by universities.
  • Advisory committees that provide advice to officials and ministers.
  • Policy reviews conducted by ministers and departments.
  • Secondments to work in a government department.
  • Commissioned research by departments.
  • Independent research institutions, outside of government and academia, “where academics and other experts work on policy problems, synthesise existing evidence and carry out new research to help fill evidence gaps.”

Assess your communication skills

Academics are subject to criticism about their ability to communicate their area of expertise and its findings. An obvious example is climate change. An issue that involves uncertainty and unknowns requires careful attention to how it is communicated.

Climate Outreach’s Guide to communicating climate change uncertainty and their Uncertainty Handbook provides useful tips, as does Victoria’s guide for policymakers which reviews best practice communication literature. Communicating within academia is one set of skills, but they may not be the best ones to use when communicating with government officials, business executives or members of the public. Knowing how to translate complex research into language that non-specialists can understand, accept and use in policy making requires a range of skills in influencing and persuading.