Research and the policy process

[This text accompanies a presentation made to a SW Crucible event on 13th February]

knowledgeIn this post I offer a perspective on academic research and the Whitehall policy process. It draws on interactions of various types in and around Whitehall going back to the start of the Major government. That includes having been involved in quite a few research projects and evaluations contracted by government departments and quangos.

One point to make at the outset is that different Whitehall departments have very different cultures, including their orientation towards research – they differ in where research sits in relation to other considerations as an input into policy thinking. And of course practice within Departments evolves over time. So I’m not sure there are many truly general lessons to be drawn.

So this is just one perspective, albeit a perspective that is also informed by the literature on research utilization. There are no doubt others with different experiences and different insights to share.

I want to make some comments under six headings.

1. You’re on their turf

As researchers you are being invited to take part in someone else’s game when you are invited to have an input into policy. It is a game played to someone else’s rules. And the rules are very much not the same as those of the conventional academic game. You have to be willing to play by those rules or you aren’t going to get anywhere. Those rules include things like effective approaches to communication, liaison with nominated research managers, policy customers, or handling advisory boards.

And, of course, the rules include whether you are even allowed to play in the first place. There is nothing to say that policy has to take account of research or be evidence-based. We might think that is desirable – indeed, good practice – but it cannot be taken for granted. And even if academic input is valued policymakers may well have views on which academics should be having an input. I’ll return to that point below.

2. The rhythms of research and policy can be very different

Much policy development – although by no means all – works on a much shorter timescale than is typical in research. While researchers may be used to thinking and planning to bring projects to fruition in months or years, in policy the relevant cycle is more likely to be weeks and months – if you’re lucky. In highly sensitive areas the relevant timescale is days and weeks, or hours.

If you’ve ever been involved in Westminster politics proper, you’ll know there can often be an all-pervading and intense sense of urgency. If you haven’t then the only academic situation I can think of that is at all similar, and it is an entirely inadequate comparison, is that it’s a bit like being permanently stuck in the summer exam season – when everyone is pressured to get the marking done in a few days so that the students’ marks can get to the exam board on time.

You may have a policy-commissioned project that will last years in total, but rarely will the commissioner be willing or able to wait years to receive outputs. There can therefore be fairly onerous interim reporting requirements. These are not stipulated simply for some sort of sadistic pleasure – rather it is likely these interim inputs need to feed into other decisions or negotiations.

Interim or early outputs can, in fact, be the most influential outputs from a project because they arrive on a timescale that is more useful to policy. Those early briefings on emerging findings or the initial case study can lead to changes of policy direction, long before the research is finished and the report is published. In fact, by the time the world at large gets to hear what the research has found it is almost certainly too late to be useful in policy terms. This can raise interesting epistemological, methodological or ethical questions – how far are you willing to go in drawing conclusions on the back of those initial findings? What if the remaining 85% of the research turns out to be saying something different? More trivially, it means claiming and demonstrating impact for the research is rather more difficult.

Working in policy research requires responsiveness and flexibility. It may be wise to go beyond the strict letter of a contract in order to be helpful. For example, years ago I had collected some data that potentially had something to say in relation to a Parliamentary Question that had been submitted. So I did a day or so of additional analysis to allow the relevant government department to provide a fuller answer to the question. It wasn’t in the original contract, and I had plenty of other things that I could be doing. But it seemed politically wise (with a small p) to help out.

Because the rhythms of policy are different, and urgent issues can indeed arise, you may need to be prepared to put yourself out a bit to keep with their timetable – even if it clashes with yours. That’s a pain, but it’s the price of being seen as someone who is useful and reliable.

3. Commissioning research

My headline message would be that if you want to engage with the policy process then prepare to be disappointed.

In the policy world there are plenty of reasons for commissioning research, and only some of them involve wanting to know the answer. You may be doing some of the most robust research the world has ever seen, with clear policy implications that can easily be put into practice, but that doesn’t mean that this is what is going to happen. I would summarise my experience as being that policy makers listen to you and act on your research just often enough to stop you giving the whole business up as a bad job. But the fact that occasionally they do act on your research can be hugely rewarding. If it leads to policy change then you may have directly affected the lives of millions of people.

Similarly, the policy rationale for a project can change during its lifetime, as the policy agenda moves on around it. You started out investigating whether a policy initiative is effective but halfway through the project the Government announces that the initiative is going to be rolled out nationwide, without waiting for your results. The rest of the project then becomes assessing how to implement successfully.

Models of research utilization provide various typologies. One well-known framework distinguishes situations in which policy makers feel obliged to respond to evidence that has already accumulated from situations in which research is commissioned to address a particular problem. In each of these cases you might say that the policy is strongly evidence-based. But, alternatively, it is possible that researchers are just one set of participants in the policy process alongside many. The size of the constituency postbag may weigh more heavily in shaping views than anything researchers have to offer.

Then there are more overtly political models. Research can be commissioned by one side or other in an ongoing political debate in an attempt to strengthen their position. Or research can be used tactically. Commissioning research on a topic can be a way of kicking it into the long grass. The politicians can be seen to be ‘doing something’ by commissioning research, but they are hoping that by the time the results emerge everyone has forgotten about the issue.

The trick is to read the situation accurately and understand which version of the game we’re playing at a given point in time.

Even if the direct use or commissioning of research does not lead to policy change, there are respectable arguments that research can have a more indirect and diffuse impact upon policy – the so-called enlightenment model. Through providing new ideas and concepts the debate is reshaped over time. New generations of students come through education and learn to interpret the world through these new concepts. As a result, when they arrive in policymaking positions the way they make sense of the issues is framed differently to their predecessors. So research does have an impact, but over rather longer timescales.

4. Civil servants differ in the extent to which they ‘get’ research

If you have worked in the civil service you will know that the task is a collective one. Written materials are common property to be worked on by several hands. Useful ideas are borrowed and adapted. Documents can be edited and reworked to make the points that need to be made in a way that is acceptable to the relevant parties. In many cases authorship is not going to be attributed anyway.

This approach to writing is completely alien to academics schooled in the importance of authorship, intellectual property, attribution and acknowledgement. And the mortal sin of plagiarism.

In my experience, most of the research managers that work in the civil service are fully conversant with the idea of independent research and the ethical obligations of researchers. You may have discussions about how particular points are expressed and text may need to be finessed to ensure that the points made are more carefully modulated. But they accept that the findings are your findings and there are some readings that the data will just not support. Even if that is inconvenient for policy.

And initiatives around modern policy making and the competencies of civil servants have broadened the appreciation of the value of evidence.

However, very occasionally you will encounter civil servants – more often on the policy side than the research side – who don’t have a lot to do with research and work in a more conventional political mode. They decide it would be a good idea to ‘improve’ your report so that it says the sorts of things that it should have said, rather than the things that it actually does say.

I’ve only had that happen to me once in a serious way, and that was quite a while ago. We ended up calling a ‘summit’ to go through our final report line by line and argue about the changes that had been made to it. We insisted that much of our text be reinstated if it was going to be published under our names as independent research.

For me that stands as a reminder. When we talk about research and policy we can think in terms of reaching an understanding and an accommodation. But we are talking about two worlds with different cultures and different imperatives.

5. Subtlety and caveat

Academic research – certainly social science research – rarely comes to unambiguous general conclusions. Limitations on the method, access to participants, or the scale of the project frequently mean that your results are not quite as robust as you might have liked in an ideal world. So there is an obligation to lay out the caveats and qualifications.

However, policy makers are rarely coming to you for a highly nuanced or inconclusive view on the matter. That isn’t necessarily a huge amount of help to them. So there can be pressure to firm up your conclusions and bring out key messages. How far you are willing to go down that route is probably a decision that can only be made on a case by case basis.

Once you’ve finished your report and it is signed off it is unlikely that the whole thing is going to be digested in its entirety by anyone close to making a major decision. A process of translation is likely to take place. Your 120 pages will be summarised to half a dozen. It may then be summarised to a side of A4 if it is going to get anywhere near a Minister. In this process all your careful caveats and qualifications may well be lost.

You may not be offered the chance to participate in this process of reduction. But you may be asked to review summaries to check that they are conveying the messages correctly. The first time you do this it can be wince-inducing. With the nuance stripped away there could be some pretty bald, and bold, statements being made. And they’ve got your name attached to them. You are not going to get all the qualifications back in to the document – if you did it would become unwieldy for policy purposes. But you can still influence the way the message is conveyed by tweaking and clarifying the language. It is possible to ensure that it conveys the feel of your findings, if not the detail. If that isn’t too vague an idea.

6. Insiders and outsiders

There are different ways in which academics can engage with policy. We can characterise this as a spectrum from insider to outsider. An insider is an academic seen as a safe pair of hands. They are invited to the table to have expert inputs into policy discussions. Within the confines of the meeting rooms in the bowels of the Department they might put their point forcefully. They might disagree sharply with policymakers. But they aren’t going to leave the room and rush to the press to launch a critical broadside at government thinking.

In contrast, the outsider stands outside the policy process lobbing rocks at the Government – criticising the inadequacies of its policy in the old or new media. Such criticisms may be fully evidence based, but it is not hard for the government to repel them. Indeed, it is not obliged to even acknowledge them. Only if the chorus of disapproval outside reaches critical mass with the Government feel obliged to respond.

It is hard to occupy both insider and outsider positions at the same time. An insider who makes a public fuss about what is going on has transgressed one of the rules of the game. And may find they aren’t invited to play again.

Being an insider means you’re close enough to the policy process at the right time to exert influence. But, generally speaking, it constrains you to influence policy in the direction of incremental change. Getting yourself a seat at the table in order to recommend the overthrow of the capitalist system probably isn’t going to work. Standing outside issuing evidence-based demands for the overthrow of the capitalist system allows the Government to dismiss you as not a serious person, unless you can get plenty of others to join you.

Each researcher has to make his or her own decision on where to locate on this spectrum. Where are you comfortable? Where do you think you’ll be most effective? Some feel insider roles are too compromised: too much of a collaborator with a regime they may disagree with. Others feel that exerting enough influence to effect incremental change for the better is better than making no difference at all: so inside is the place to be.

It is, however, important to recognise that your positioning isn’t entirely within your control. Their game, their rules.

Image: © vladgrin – Fotolia.com


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2 replies »

  1. Very interesting reflections. As an aside, I noticed recently that a former colleague of ours has posted the draft introduction to his latest book. This contains his familiar refrains against the evils of scholarly engagement with policy, but some new laments about what a hard time he had as a prisoner in the School for Policy Studies & how he only coped with the support of a few fellow travellers. When I have a bit of time, and perhaps when his book is actually published, I might pen a review about the tribulations of those scholars who so publicly proclaim their concern for various inequities but choose to do no more than write academic books about them. You’ll remember that these are not new views!

  2. This sounds about par for the course. Unfortunate that the experience to have left so deep a scar so many years later!