Ta-da! How to be a whizz at policy engagement

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How to stay up-to-date with debates, look for opportunities and engage with policy makers.

In the 2013 film Now You See Me, four magicians pull off a series of heists during their performances, taking money from the rich to give to ordinary people in the audience. Like Robin Hood, but with stage lighting. The question is, how did they do it?

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Baffled by the supposedly impossible, the authorities decide they need help. So they turn to Morgan Freeman’s character, a former magician who now makes a living exposing the tricks of the trade. Of course it wasn’t magic, he explains, there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye. The trick is knowing where to look…

Putting aside my Netflix viewing for a second, helping to shape public policy is a worthwhile activity for academics, but it’s not always easy to see how to do it. Achieving impact in public policy isn’t magic, but there are some tricks you can learn. What you need is a guide, so let me be your Morgan Freeman.

Watch closely

Lots of magic tricks work because the audience don’t see what’s really happening. Yet, if you know where to look, you might notice a card coming out of a sleeve. The point is, you need to know what to look for, and where to find it. With that in mind, here are some ways to keep up-to-date with the latest news and opportunities from the world of public policy:

  • Sign up to our weekly consultation tracker email to find out about the latest opportunities to engage with policy makers. If you are a University of Birmingham staff member then you can sign up by emailing publicaffairs@contacts.bham.ac.uk.
  • Subscribe to a political briefing newsletter for daily updates on what’s going on in politics. I can recommend The Spectator’s Lunchtime Espresso, but (in the interest of balance) other brands are available.
  • Follow relevant politicians and commentators on Twitter.
  • Check Hansard, the official record of Parliament, to read what politicians are saying about issues relevant to your interests. You can also view the Parliamentary calendar to see what debates are coming up.
  • Read websites like Conservative Home, LabourList or Lib Dem Voice for insights into what party supporters are thinking.

Keeping your finger on the pulse is really important, because it helps you to understand the wider political context to policy debates and means you are ready to act when the right opportunities come up.

It’s all in the preparation

There are lots of ways you can engage with policy makers, but you should change your approach depending on what you are trying to achieve. Having a clear focus on your objectives helps you to identify the best way of achieving them. So take time early on to define your goals, and this will help shape your strategy.

Once you know what you are trying to achieve, think about who has the power to make it happen. Sometimes called the Key Decision Maker(s), these are the people who you are trying to convince. That’s not to say they’re always the most senior people. If you want to talk about technical aspects of a policy, you’re probably better off reaching out to the civil servants working on the close detail. 

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Surrounding these is another group, called the Key Opinion Formers. These may not have the power to change things directly, but they can help build support for your cause. To take an example, if the Transport Secretary is the person making the decision, you’ll probably also want to reach out to MPs on the Transport Select Committee and those who have spoken about transport in Parliament.

At this point, it’s worth noting that you are unlikely to see dramatic results straight away. You need to be patient; most wins are the result of sustained lobbying efforts over time. Whatever you are trying to achieve, it will probably involve making and restating your case to different stakeholders at different points. You’re aiming to attract supporters over time, who will tip the scales in your favour. So be patient, but when opportunities present themselves, move fast. Don’t miss the boat. 

You should also consider the issue from the policy maker’s perspective. MPs, for example, have their constituents to think about and may also be bound by manifesto commitments, or budgetary restrictions. Research evidence is just one of the many factors that they will consider. Think about the political context, and work within the framework of what is politically possible.

Offer to brief policy makers

Once you’ve decided what you want to achieve and identified the people you need to convince, you’re ready to get started. 

A good place to start is by writing a briefing note. I’ve previously written about how to write one of these, but here’s a recap. You should use briefing notes to summarise your argument and provide supporting facts and context. 

As a rule of thumb, keep them around two pages long. By far the most important part is your executive summary, so make it as engaging as possible and give your readers something to act on.

Once you have a briefing note, you can send it out to relevant policy makers along with an offer of a meeting or phone call to discuss further.

Ideally, you’ll want to brief people at an opportune moment, so look at what’s coming up in Parliament, what policies are being discussed in the media and the proposals that the government are consulting on. 

Respond to consultations and inquiries

If you’re signed up to our Consultation Tracker then each week you’ll receive a roundup of the latest government consultations and select committee inquiries that are looking for evidence submissions.

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The government will generally consult when they are considering introducing a new policy or assess the effectiveness of existing policies, while the job of select committees is to scrutinise the work of government. 

In both cases, there will be a list of questions for you to respond to. You don’t have to answer everything; it’s a good idea to focus only on the areas that are relevant to your interests. You can often respond to government consultations through an online form, but for select committee inquiries you’ll need to submit your responses (written evidence) in a particular format.

If your evidence is accepted by the select committee then it will be published on their website, which helps you demonstrate your influence on the policy debate. You may also be called upon to give evidence in person and your views may be cited in the committee’s final report at the end of the inquiry.

Give feedback on a Bill

One of the main roles of parliament is to debate and pass legislation. While individual members can put forward their own ideas (known as Private Members’ Bills), most of those that become law are initiated by the government. For a detailed look at how Bills become law and the stages that are involved, see this helpful guide.

In general, the earlier you can influence the legislative process, the better. Ideally, you should look to offer up your ideas at the consultation stage, before the publication of a Bill. However, when the text of a Bill is released, you may have specific technical feedback on the clauses.

If that is the case, you can look to produce a briefing note detailing your specific feedback. This can be sent along to the officials responsible for drafting the Bill as well as ministers and parliamentarians with an interest in the area. 

The Committee stage offers an opportunity to submit your ideas in a similar way to a select committee inquiry. The key thing is to submit your feedback as soon as possible to give parliamentarians time to consider your proposals. Be prepared to make yourself available for phone calls or face-to-face meetings to discuss your ideas in more detail. 

Contribute to a POSTnote

The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, commonly referred to as POST, describe themselves as ‘Parliament’s in-house source of independent, balanced and accessible analysis of public-policy issues related to science and technology.’

They oversee the production of POSTnotes, which are four-page summaries of research areas and this offers a great opportunity for academics to work with parliamentary officials. The team are always on the lookout for experts to help them by feeding in ideas or acting as an external reviewer. When new projects are announced, you can get involved by emailing the leading POST fellow to outline (briefly) your expertise and offering to help. 

Academics at the University of Birmingham have recently contributed to POSTnotes on a range of topics including: 

Engage with ARIs

Following a 2015 review into the UK Research Councils, many government departments now publish a list of their Areas of Research Interest (ARIs). These set out a list of topics and specific questions to highlight their current evidence needs. 

The best way to respond to these questions is to get in contact with each department to discuss how you can help them answer specific questions. This might involve organising a roundtable discussion or you could carry out a short project to synthesise the existing body of research. Producing a synthesis is one of the most valuable things you can do for civil servants, who may not have the time or specialist knowledge required. One way to achieve this could be through the creating policy fellowships for early career researchers to focus on specific ARI questions or themes.

Expand your network through APPGs

All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) are informal groups that parliamentarians from any party can join. While they aren’t an official part of parliament, they offer a focal point for MPs and peers to discuss issues of common interest, and so they are a great way for you to build connections. 

There are hundreds of APPGs, some focus on specific countries while others on particular subjects. You can find a list of the current APPGs online here. Offering to speak at one of their meetings or sending them a briefing are two great ways to start engaging with them. Some APPGs also run their own inquiries, like select committees, and so there may also be opportunities for you to submit evidence.

Organise a roundtable or policy commission

Universities can also convene policy discussions that draw in contributions beyond academia, which can be an attractive proposition for policy makers. We recently held a roundtable event on homelessness, which involved participants from academia, local government, the NHS and civil society.

Policy commissions bring together academics with external experts to produce a detailed report on a particular policy area. These can be a great way of exploring an issue in depth, but require a much greater investment in time and resource.

Keep us in the loop

Finally, if you are planning any kind of policy engagement activity then it’s a good idea to drop us a line in the public affairs team at publicaffairs@contacts.bham.ac.uk before you get started.

For further resources on policy engagement, please visit our intranet page.

Author: Jeremy Swan, Public Affairs Manager (Policy Impact)

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