How to Design Research to defend the Status Quo/Stop Bad Stuff from Happening?

October 7, 2021

     By Duncan Green     

Gave my annual lecture on ‘research for policy impact’ with a bunch of typically super-smart LSE Masters students this week from its new School of Public Policy, hosted by Lloyd Gruber. The Q&A at the end is always brilliant (if occasionally terrifying), and this year, the question that really got my juices flowing was from Laura Denham, with a similar question from Benedict Mayer: how to design research to defend the status quo, rather than advocating for a particular change of law, policy, behaviours etc? A few thoughts:

I’ve written in the past about how the attention in advocacy is skewed towards making good things happen rather than stopping bad stuff. The latter (let’s call them ‘theories of defence’ rather than ‘theories of change’) is less exciting, harder to raise funds for, and harder to measure (how do you prove that something didn’t happen because of your actions? Nightmare).

But what could that mean for ‘defensive research’? Let’s look at it in terms of ideas, incentives, institutions and implementation:

Ideas: can you frame a particular threat to the status quo in such a way that it increases the number of potential opponents? For example, pro-choice activists researching the health consequences of various pieces of nasty legislation going through a number of US states such as Texas right now might persuade a wider public than if they focus on it purely as a rights issue. Or if the proposed change seems dry and technical, try and identify the human story behind it – who will be harmed by this, and what do they think about it? That can make it more intelligible to both media and the public

No not that Status Quo

Incentives: focus on who is likely to lose from the change to the status quo, because research also shows that people often care more about what is being taken away than what is being received. The potential losers are likely to be vociferous allies of the status quo. Think in terms of messengers (not just your message)  – who might those driving through the change fear or respect? Could you recruit any of them to present your research in favour of maintaining the status quo?

Institutions: Unpack the institution that is responsible for making the shift in the status quo and identify losers there too – which ministries or tiers of government could lose out? What effect will it have on budgets or tax revenues? Finally, of course, highlight the degree of opposition and the impact of the change in lost votes.

Implementation: even if you lose the battle on the new law or policy, research can play a valuable role in tracking what happens next. Who is being hurt by its implementation? Are there unintended consequences not foreseen by those who drove the change through? Such research can help build the case for revision or repeal.

Any other suggestions?

And here are two other top questions, and my tentative answers (please flesh them out)

Ana Laura Sobalbarro: Is there a challenge –  and if there is one – how to overcome it …. on handling research objectively considering your audience vs being biased by the audience/ or pushed by the interests of the audience/funders of think tank/project?

DG: It’s always worth thinking about potential sources of bias. If you want to persuade a given target, what is the balance between choosing language and narratives that appeal to them, v over-doing it and misrepresenting your findings? Three suggestions:

1. separate the influencing materials (exec sums, policy briefs etc) from the core research (which is probably a long and unreadable paper anyway!). That way you keep a solid ground for your work, on which you can build.

2. Don’t be too anxious to please – you don’t need the targets of your research to become your best friends, and in advocacy it can help to introduce some ‘critical tension’ into the relationship.

3. If in doubt, get someone external to referee what you’re doing and tell you if you have lost the plot. This also applies to funders – power always follows money to some degree and if you want to maintain a good relationship with a funder, it is very easy to slide into a position of telling them what they want to hear. We call that ‘consultancy’ 😉

Krishna Joshi: Interested to hear the role researchers can play in influencing civil servants to get good research on the agenda of their Ministers – and should this be the role of the researcher or not?

DG: Here’s some top tips from a senior Foreign Office researcher on the use of research in influencing policy. I think if you want civil servants to pick up your research, you have to cultivate relationships and present the research in a way that they and their political masters can absorb – simple, short and with key policy takeaways clearly set out. On the second point, given the way that research is funded these days (e.g. the REF), researchers do have to think about this, but I guess you should be ‘allowed’ to do pure research and not feel like you have to schmooze the civil servants and politicians if that fills you with horror. But be warned, that won’t help you get your work funded!

October 7, 2021
Duncan Green