What can you do when policymakers ignore your evidence? Tips from the ‘how to’ literature from the science community

In this post, Paul Cairney and colleagues distil eight recommendations for promoting the use of evidence in policy making from 78 academic articles. But what if these recommendations are not enough? It’s OK, the authors also provide five additional resources to facilitate research impact in a policy context.

Put down that huge blue pen. Step away from the flipchart.

There is now a large literature on the strategies that people might use to promote the use of evidence in policy, so you no longer have to start from first principles in your workshop.

Thanks to Dr Kathryn Oliver and colleagues, we now have systematic reviews of the peer reviewed academic evidence on the ‘barriers’ between evidence and policy (click here) and the ‘grey literature’, which includes newspaper editorials, blogs, and practitioner reports (see article 1 in PSR; article 2 is still in review).

The advice from the peer reviewed literature can be summed up as follows:

  1. Produce better quality evidence on policy problems and solutions.

  2. Improve dissemination strategies to increase policymaker access to research: write more concise and less jargon-filled reports, boost resources for dissemination, and remove paywall obstacles to accessing research.

  3. Develop relationships with policymakers, to address the unpredictability of politics, or the importance of timing, serendipity, and ‘windows of opportunity’ to act.

  4. Engage directly, in academic-practitioner workshops, or use intermediaries such as ‘knowledge brokers’, to break down communications and cultural barriers associated with the different incentives, rhythms, and language of researcher and policymakers.

  5. Encourage policymakers to be more science literate, to appreciate the role of evidence and ways to separate high- and low-quality sources

The grey literature is fairly similar.

Kathryn and I summarise key themes and individual recommendations from 78 publications as follows:

  1. Do high quality research.

Use specific well-established research designs, methods, or metrics.

  1. Make your research relevant and readable.

Provide and disseminate easily-understandable, clear, relevant and high-quality research. Aim for the general but ‘not ignorant’ reader. Produce good stories based, for example, on emotional appeals or humour to expand your audience

  1. Understand the policy process, policymaking context, and key actors.

Note the busy and constrained lives of policy actors. Maximise your use of established ways to engage, such as in advisory committees. Be pragmatic about what ‘success’ looks like, accepting that research rarely translates into policy options directly

  1. Be ‘accessible’ to policymakers: engage routinely, flexibly, and humbly.

As publicly-funded professionals, it is the job of academics to engage with policy and publics. Discuss topics beyond your narrow expertise, as a representative of your discipline or the science profession. Be humble, courteous, professional, and recognise the limits to your skills when giving policy advice. Respect policymakers’ time and expertise.

  1. Decide if you want to be an ‘issue advocate’ or ‘honest broker’

There is a commonly-cited ethical dilemma about whether to go beyond providing evidence to recommend specific policy options or remain an ‘honest broker’ explaining the options. If making recommendations, use storytelling to persuade policymakers of a course of action. However, note the consequences of becoming a political actor. David Nutt famously lost his advisory role after publicly criticising government drugs policy, some describe the loss of one’s safety if adopting an activist mindset, and anecdotal conversations describe the risk of losing credibility in government if seen as too evangelical while giving policy advice. However, more common consequences include criticism within one’s peer-group, being seen as an academic ‘lightweight, being used to add legitimacy to a policy position, and the risk of burnout.

  1. Build relationships (and ground rules) with policymakers.

Relationship-building activities require major investment and skills, but working collaboratively is often necessary to get evidence into policy. Academics could identify policy actors to provide better insight into policy problems, act as champions for their research, and identify the most helpful policy actors, who may advisors rather than ministers. However, collaboration can also lead to conflict and reputational damage. Therefore, when possible, produce ground rules acceptable to academics and policymakers. Successful engagement may require all parties to agree about processes (ethics, consent, and confidentiality) and outputs (data, intellectual property).

  1. Be ‘entrepreneurial’ or find someone who is

Much advice projects an image of a daring, persuasive scientist, comfortable in policy environments and always available when needed. Develop media and marketing skills. If not willing or able to act in this way, hire brokers to act on your behalf.

  1. Reflect continuously: should you engage, do you want to, and is it working?

Academics may be a good fit in the policy arena if they enjoy the work or are passionate about the issue. Even so, keep track of when and how you have had impact, and revise your practices continuously.

At first glance, some of this advice appears to be consistent with key reference points in policy studies. For example, multiple streams analysis suggests that ‘policy entrepreneurs’ can make the difference to the uptake of evidence because they recognise three key requirements: tell stories to help draw attention to one way to frame a policy problem; have an evidence-informed and technically/ politically feasible policy solution ready, to attach to a lurch of attention to a problem; and, exploit the temporary willingness and ability of policymakers to select that solution. Yet, MSA only makes sense in relation to the wider policymaking environment which adds a sense of scale to this advice. Put simply, most entrepreneurs fail, and their success depends more on their environment than their skills.

Therefore, to provide more context for – and make more sense of – this ‘how to’ advice, we need to go further:

  • What can you do when policymakers ignore your evidence? Encourage ‘knowledge management for policy’ (go to page 568)

  • How else can we describe and seek to fill the evidence-policy gap? (go to page 400)

  • How far should you go to privilege evidence? 1. Evidence and governance principles (go to page 101)

  • How far should you go to privilege evidence? 2. Policy theories, scenarios, and ethical dilemmas (go to page 526)

  • How far should you go to privilege evidence? 3. Use psychological insights to manipulate policymakers (go to page 300 then scroll down to point 3)