Four Lessons on Policy Engagement from the TIP/MPG ‘New Media, Old Media’ Workshop

Article originally published in the PSA Blog here, 15th Feb, 2023.

On January 19th, the Technology, Internet, & Policy (TIP) and the Media Politics Group (MPG) hosted our highly anticipated workshop that brought together a diverse group of experts to tackle pressing issues in digital and media policy. The impressive line-up of participants included representatives from DCMS, the EU Parliament, ICO, TikTok, and Reach PLC. Through multiple insightful discussions, it became apparent not only how vital policy engagement is within the overall policymaking process is, but how digital communications has provided opportunities, and also challenges, to policy collaboration between various sectors. Throughout these, there were a plethora of advice about the best practice of policy engagement.

In this short blog, we highlight some of the key tips and secrets shared throughout the day for policy engagement by academics:

1. Build your personal Rolodex of key contacts

In the hit TV series, The Office (US), Michael Scott maintains an elaborate Rolodex of all his contacts – keeping records of people within his network, their interests, and when to get in touch. While this system is used for comedic effect, a surprising amount of academics and policy practitioners use a similar system. Be it in the form of a Google Sheet or Excel spreadsheet, the aim is to keep track of the people you’ve met, where, their interests, and key points of time to get in contact. Such a system represents an organised approach to maintaining your professional network. It’s also incredibly useful in building professional relationships – highlighting when you’ve met before, and maybe a few key talking points works wonders in greasing the squeaky wheels of policy engagement.

And while many of you might think this is what LinkedIn is useful for, you’re partly right, but there’s value on keeping this information off the grid and firmly in your control.

2. Contract research are not dirty words

When government departments encounter specific policy challenges, they often turn to outside sources for research assistance. These often vary in size and can be anything from a small piece of work to being retained as long-term advisors on a fee-paid basis. But some academics have been put off applying for these smaller research contracts, fearing the money represents ‘dirty research money’ – they couldn’t be more wrong.

Instead, contract work can be the starting point for future research. At the workshop, practitioners and researchers both explained how such work has opened the door for future engagement within the department or has produced outputs which went on to directly support even larger grant applications. While for policymakers, they actively prefer academics to bid for such work – citing the quality of work is both higher quality, and cheaper, than that offered by consultants.

To get started, one can search for open research tenders on department commissioning pages or look for areas of interest indicated by their Areas of Research Interest (ARIs). Networking with department contacts can also provide insight into potential research funding opportunities. Contract work is just one of several options for policy engagement, which also include academic placements and fellowships. Ultimately, these opportunities provide a valuable means of applying your expertise to real-world policy issues.

3. To deliver policy advice, sometimes you have to stop being (and communicating like) an academic

The communication between academics and policy makers has often found itself fraught with miscommunication, with one policy maker explaining the dynamic to be two sides throwing information over a wall, and expecting the other side to do something with it. The challenge lies in bridging this gap between the two spheres. One key area of contention is the belief that on the academic side, detailed and nuanced analysis shouldn’t be ignored by policy circles, whose focus is driven more by practical considerations. While there is certainly merit in the critique, most policy makers aren’t able to change that.

Instead, academics should put themselves in policymakers shoes: Policymakers might have to justify a policy’s economic benefits; work within the timespan of your typical government (4-5 years, at most); and serve ministers who are motivated by simple & fast solutions to ever-increasing complex problems. This means there is a need for changing your writing style and thinking about presenting your research in briefings which are short, clear briefings that presented clear answers, delivered quickly (commonly phrased, at pace). At the same time, answers should concisely demonstrate relevance and implications for policy. Additionally, academics must be mindful of the political and institutional context in which policy decisions are made and tailor their advice accordingly. This might be a sharp change from the type of writing style academics have long been trained into, but it’s worth perusing. By doing so, they can help to ensure that their research findings inform and shape policy outcomes in a meaningful and impactful way.

4. Research Impact is more than direct influence on one or two people

Within the workshop, there was a demonstration that for some academics, research impact was defined by a thin perspective which limits the scope to directly writing policy. However, policy is not made in a vacuum, and policy makers from different departments do not necessarily talk to each other. Instead, when planning an engagement strategy, don’t only think of direct engagement with those at the top, but a more distributed approach:

Influence the influencers. Connect across multiple touchpoints such as conferences, written evidence, or even platforms such as POST’s work programme. Think outside of core government departments, such as devolved bodies and local councils. Engage with external bodies and research groups such as the Alan Turing Institute. All of these are part of a complex and large landscape in which policy is formed, and you should be there too.

So, that’s a lot to work with, but here’s a handy word document we’ve put together with this blog to help you jot down your thoughts and develop your next research engagement strategy – all informed by our workshop. 

Policy Engagement Planning Template

If you’re interested in joining our future events and workshops, make sure to join both the Technology, Internet, and Policy Group and the Media Politics Group here at the Political Studies Association!

If you want to see more photos from the event, make sure to check out our gallery here: