Published: 25 November 2020

Influencing Policy. A long and complicated process - made easier by Professor Mark Reed.

Professor Mark Reed of Newcastle University has given an energetic and insightful workshop to University of Surrey social scientists last month on how to influence policy.

It began rather like a marketing seminar, talking through processes such as carrying out stakeholder analysis, creating a plan of action, anticipating impact... yet as the day moved along, the group learnt a lot about themselves and the personal barriers that researchers need to overcome to become successful influencers. They also learnt that plush animal character feet warmers are a must for the winter lockdown!

Mark asked everyone to name a single word that would reflect the ‘take home’ message for the day. ‘Empathy’ was the first suggestion and the one he was looking for! He urged the researchers to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, throughout the day, and to consider how they might selectively choose the research which will meet that person’s need.

More questions arose including “Is it our job to make evidence available when it is requested?” and “How can you feel you are making a difference?”

Mark suggested proactively targeting and communicating evidence to specific teams would have a better influence over policy. “If you become an influencer, you don’t risk important evidence being missed and you can build relationships where you then become the ‘expert’ and are contacted for help.” Indeed, in one of the breaks Mark was contacted by a Government department with an urgent request to discuss something very important that couldn’t wait! Naturally, it had to.

“What is policy impact?” was the next question, and we were told that if we took out the word impact and replaced it with benefit, things would become clearer. We should ask of our research, is it of benefit to anyone. If it isn’t then you’re either still doing the research or there may be negative consequences of your research, which Mark offered advice on handling.

“What is research impact?” Mark suggests it’s “the good that researchers do in the world.” We were warned that getting policy impact and research impact is a very long process, but that there are windows of opportunity and Brexit is a case in point. We were told that the highest scoring impacts in REF use research which is on average 17 years old!

An important step in the influencing process according to Mark is stakeholder analysis, who is interested, who has influence and who is impacted. He suggested taking the time to really think about how you communicate with stakeholders, preferring the slow and targeted approach to a fast blanket email strategy.

And here’s one I made earlier...Mark shared his impact planning template! This is a very simple but helpful tool for researchers to use which ensures they have accounted for the time needed to influence policy in the most successful way. It also allows time for reflection and redirection should the research need to take alternative paths. From impact goals, to risks, to timings it includes logical things to consider when putting an impact plan together. We were told that quite often researchers do the legwork of finding out what it is a policy maker might want and we were encouraged not to be shy in doing that, but to factor the time in.

The group then moved onto discussions around writing a successful policy brief and how this kind of summary of research evidence can be a good way of getting your work noticed. A policy note targets a

specific issue, gap or need and provides policy options, advice or actions. These can be stand alone or part of a series, and very useful to hand out at the end of a talk or when your research is only part of a bigger picture.

In discussing and reviewing some of these it soon became clear that policy notes take time to produce and that academics rarely get the design or marketing support they need. Most research bids fail to account for a marketing and communications budget. Mark recommends setting budget for time with a designer or marketing person who can help get your ideas onto paper in an engaging way, so that you don’t have to.

Mark suggested that the policy process is always more complex than just ‘following the evidence’. He feels there is “no ‘evidence based’ policy, only ‘evidence informed’ policy.” He talked about the use of persuasive language in influencing policy makers and how much information you should provide or withhold.

The following key points were raised throughout the remainder of the workshop that (as well as a copy of his book ‘Influencing Policy’) the group were able to take away as a ‘go to’ checklist for taking those first steps towards communicating with policy makers.

  • Have a purpose
  • Communicate tangible benefits
  • Explain why benefits are important
  • Give people a reason to trust you – important for early career researchers
  • Mention all partners and funders you’re involved with
  • Know your audience
  • The power of stories
  • Use your body language, be open and approachable
  • Be authoritative and passionate
  • Use emphasis to make every word count
  • Keep it simple.

In talking about his next book, ‘Impact Culture’, Mark suggests psychological barriers are often the biggest things that hold us back from creating impact.

An early career researcher, Maya Khera, summed this up by saying “...when you talk about things going wrong, as an early career researcher it’s just so inspiring and encouraging because I can constantly feel not good enough at things and actually when you see very esteemed academics say they’ve had similar experiences early on, it's really hopeful and uplifting.”

As the day drew to a close, Mark spoke about the importance of evaluation and monitoring of research impact and advised this should become a habitual process of keeping good records. Among other things he recommends creating an email filing system and the use of apps such as Evernote. Reach, we were told, means nothing unless you can evidence the significance of the reach.

One last piece of advice for the day - “Get ‘win-wins’ for your research by asking ‘what's my impact’ as a research question and identify methods already in your toolkit.”

We’d like to thank Mark for this extremely engaging workshop, and for his honesty and openness in sharing his experiences. All those who attended were offered a hard copy of his book and the opportunity to follow up with him one-to-one in a month’s time for a mentoring session.

Mark will return in 2021 to provide another online workshop based around his next book, “Impact Culture”. Booking via Eventbrite is essential, please find the link here.

This workshop was funded through the Economic and Social Research Council's (ESRC) Impact Acceleration Account.

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