How Should Academics talk to Decision-Makers? Some Interesting New Research

May 11, 2022

     By Duncan Green     

I’m not a great fan of post-growth/degrowth debates – not enough emphasis on how to actually change policy for my liking (compared to the ‘I’m right, the planet is frying, why won’t you listen!’ school of advocacy). But a new paper by the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity caught my eye because it explores precisely that interface between convinced academic advocates and harassed/sceptical law makers in the UK.

It also has some interesting findings on framing the problem as ‘growth dependency’, which it argues has strong potential to influence political debate. ‘By identifying growth as both a dependency and one which is fundamentally unsustainable, this critique may be able to frame growth as a dangerous addiction—one that politicians could and should help society to kick.’

But back to the interface between scholars and lawmakers. The report concludes

‘Academics can boost the effectiveness of their research by utilising the language of government and playing to politicians’ need for policy solutions and arguments they can use in debate.

Rational argument and well-evidenced research is not enough on its own; political influence requires some form of emotional engagement with the public.

Effective research-based policy requires partnerships between researchers, policymakers, practitioners, and the public. Policy proposals have a better chance of success when backed up by both an inside track approach (involving behind the scenes discussions with government officials and politicians) and an outside track approach (involving public campaigning).

There are different types of ‘policymakers’, with different interests and relationships to power—and academic researchers should vary their communication strategies accordingly. In many cases, politicians themselves are seeking to influence other politicians in power; here there may be particular potential for mutually beneficial relationships between politicians and academics.

The first three bullets are straight out of research-for-impact 101, but the last one got me thinking. It’s always a good idea to disaggregate any kind of monolithic blob – ‘the state’ ‘the private sector’ etc, because digging in, you will often find potential allies (and enemies) and start to see potential points of entry for influence. For academics that means finding those politicians, or civil servants, who want to use your work in their internal battles for influence.

Digging into the body of the report, the authors interviewed 2 senior politicians and 2 political advisers to other big fish (not a big sample, I realize), and came up with some useful headlines:

Academics who wish to influence policy need to find the language of the government of the day (and that of the opposition parties) and play to their need for answers. This involves

‘Presenting one’s research as answering a question the government is asking. If you can make a clear case to ministers / civil servants / special advisers that you have some answers that are useful to them, then you will be invited in for a discussion. It’s those academics who are clever at this form of presentation that get heard. In all this it’s important to remember that you cannot just raise questions and complications; politicians are hungry for answers.’

There are different types of ‘policymakers’, with different interests and relationships to power—and academic researchers should vary their communication strategies accordingly.

‘Policymakers’ are anything but a monolithic bloc. Within government there are ministers, civil servants, and special advisers; in Parliament, there are backbenchers, opposition parties, and cross-party committees; nationally, political parties have their own forums for developing policy platforms. In many cases, politicians themselves do not have direct access to power—if they are backbenchers, in opposition, or even if they ministers of departments that have less influence on government policy than others (notably the Treasury, which has often constrained the influence of the environmental agenda within the UK Government). What this means is that often the politicians that researchers may be seeking to influence are themselves in a not dissimilar position, in terms of themselves seeking to influence others who wield political power.’

Though composed of backbenchers, select committees have real power—and researchers can maximise their influence with them by following simple rules.

‘While indirect, in the sense that they scrutinise government policy rather than make it, their influence on future government policy can be significant. The first rule is to focus clearly on framing the evidence they submit to the needs of the committee. In submitting written evidence, it is also important to be clear that one would welcome the opportunity also to give oral evidence— which will have much greater impact. Contributors should not assume that members will read their written evidence, but in any case should tailor it as much as possible to the committee members and the inquiry questions. Written evidence should be presented in such a way that it is aiming to frame the recommendations of the inquiry. When giving oral evidence, the key is having a clear message to impart. If it is possible to suggest a committee take evidence in situ, outside Westminster, this can give a hearing bigger impact, both with the members themselves and with the media and public in that area.’

Academic expertise can be vital to the credibility and effectiveness of politicians who are themselves trying to influence political debate and government decisions. At the same time, research based on evidence and rational argument is not enough on its own; political influence requires some form of emotional engagement with the public.

Useful, and relevant to topics well beyond post-growth economics.

May 11, 2022
Duncan Green