BLOG: 5 things I've learnt about working with policymakers...

In this blog our Impact and Knowledge Exchange Manager Harriet Barker shares some insights about bringing together academic researchers and government policymakers.

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Last month I accompanied a researcher to meet with a policymaker in government, supporting them to work together to develop a research project. Afterwards, I asked the researcher (who was new to co-producing research questions in this way) how they’d found it.

They remarked: “It was great to meet them in person and get to know each other’s needs. The main thing I realised was that all the research questions I had previously thought would be relevant and useful for policy, in fact aren’t as aligned as I’d thought.

“But now I have a better understanding and know where they’re coming from, so I can design projects with this in mind and help maximise the benefit. ”

Working in impact and knowledge exchange for the Scottish Centre for Administrative Data Research, and as part of the ADR Scotland team, I have been privileged to work within Scottish Government part of each week. We are focused on bringing researchers like this one together with policymakers more often, aiming to better support and understand how academic research can influence policy.

A complex context

The areas we are working on are administrative data and data linkage. The first aspect appears to be fairly straightforward – administrative data is data routinely collected by the public sector such as by the NHS, local authorities or government departments. Data linkage also seems comprehensible – the linking of different datasets together to gain greater insights into outcomes, trends and trajectories. So the two terms on their own don’t seem too problematic. However when you start to discuss the nuances of this kind of research - variables, cohorts, population spines, de-identified data, safe settings etc - it all becomes a bit more complex (and technical!).

How can longitudinal data, collected over time about populations, be relevant to current policy issues? What can our kind of research offer to a government policy context and society’s broader evidence base, and vice versa? Add onto that the complexity of the policy environment, not least in such tumultuous times as these, and there isn’t a shortage of challenges to overcome.

We know this data is incredibly rich and can provide huge insights, so across our work as a partnership we’re exploring how we can ensure our research doesn’t just align to policy, but actually helps to inform and shape it too.

The lessons I’ve learnt so far:

  • LISTEN: Listen to what policymakers have got to say – their perspective may be quite different and they may look at issues from a completely different point of view. This will help you to frame your ideas with their context in mind.
  • BE FLEXIBLE: Think about how your research, your expertise and - in this case - the data available, might be able to answer their questions. Can your research be reshaped? How can new emerging agendas be considered? Can you share initial findings earlier, so they can start utilising them? How can you work together to create something that’s useful for both your needs?
  • BE PREPARED: Know what your pitch is and what you can offer. Think of the key messages and what you’d like to convey. It’s unlikely you’ll get much time to discuss ideas at length, so you need to be confident with what you need from policy meetings and be able to explain your research ideas and expertise clearly and succinctly.
  • DEVELOP LASTING RELATIONSHIPS: Hone in on the policy units, teams or divisions that are relevant to your work. Try to build connections and trust. Involve policy stakeholders from the outset of the research, not just at the findings stage and plan ways to keep in touch so they’re kept up-to-date and know you’re reliable.
  • BE OPEN: You may need to rethink ways to formulate and carry out your research. It’s a different context – from timescales and language to priorities – and it may make you reconsider how you think about and define policy-relevant research, and maximise impact.

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This blog was written as part of the work of the Scottish Centre for Administrative Data Research, within the ADR Scotland partnership, funded by UKRI/ESRC

This article was published on 11 Sep 2019

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Harriet Barker