To influence policy, researchers must consider ‘hidden obstacles’

1 November 2017

Politicians want to be able to use and rely on evidence to inform policy making, but may be constrained by “hidden obstacles”, according to Huw Irranca-Davies AM.

Irranca-Davies was speaking at the Wales launch of the Campaign for Social Science’s latest report ‘Pathways to Impact: A practical guide for researchers’, supported by Cardiff University. The online tool-kit is designed to help new researchers improve their political impact by providing guidance to link social science evidence more closely to the policy making process, with a focus on the Welsh Government and National Assembly for Wales.

Explore Pathways to Impact: A practical guide for researchers

The Welsh Assembly Member for Ogmore and Chair of the Cross-Party Group on Universities spoke of his career as a former academic with experience on the other side of the policy making process. He said there are legitimate questions as to “why don’t politicians just behave rationally? Why don’t politicians just make the right decisions when the evidence is staring them in the face? Why do politicians at least sometimes choose to ignore the evidence?”

The answer, he revealed, lies in competing political pressures from “daily and internal politics, constituents, and pressure groups”. These tensions make it difficult for those who want to make the right decisions based on evidence, but must contend with “external influencers” below the surface pushing against it.

Politicians do love the use of evidence, it’s what allows us to stand up and say ‘You may disagree with me, but I’ve got the evidence on my side’.

While Irranca-Davies credited the Welsh Assembly and Welsh Government for the value they’ve placed on evidence-based policymaking, he acknowledged that there nonetheless remains a “mismatch” between the availability and uptake of impactful evidence. This is caused by a variety of factors, including timeframes that don’t line up, other political responsibilities, and the different needs and goals of policy makers.

Greater consideration needs to be placed on how data and evidence are used, setting up exchanges with the science community so they can be translated “into real tangible results”. The way in which research is communicated, its usefulness and utility, and the credibility of individual researchers also affects research uptake.

Irranca-Davies urged new thinking that goes beyond the expedience of short-termism, and praised the online-tool kit as an invaluable resource helping researchers influence decision makers to positive effect. The takeaway, he said, was to be alive to political pressures while learning to navigate their challenges.

“Try to put yourself in the mind of policymakers and politicians. Why is it that sometimes they can’t do the right thing, and how can you make it easier? Part of this is understanding how best to influence if not on day one, maybe on day three or day five”.

Audience members also heard case studies that provided concrete examples of how researchers were able to influence policy.

Professor Emma Renold, Professor of Childhood Studies at Cardiff University, recounted her work which led to the creation of the National Assembly for Wales’ Cross Party Group on Childhood Sexuality – Sexualisation and Equality, and ultimately culminated in the Violence Against Women, Domestic Abuse, and Sexual Violence Act.

For Renold, learning “how to communicate dense research” to a policy audience was key to informing, influencing and shifting the terms of the debate towards current research evidence on these issues. This was reinforced by collaboration and partnerships between researchers and government, and creative forms of engagement that led to government supported activities.

Once you’ve done something good, everybody wants to talk to you.

Dr Peter Mackie, Senior Lecturer in the School of Geography and Planning at Cardiff University, spoke of his successful efforts to develop world-leading homelessness legislation in Wales.

Mackie emphasised the importance of taking advantage of windows of opportunity to influence legislation, while building up trust and credibility among peers and policymakers. Researchers need to also understand the policy environment and “speak in realities”, relating recommendations to existing legislation and policies. Most crucially, accepting compromise and ensuring an ongoing dialogue help propel lasting impact.

Dr Ashley Thomas Lenihan, Senior Policy Adviser at the Campaign for Social Science, and author of the report, said the goal of the tool-kit was to be a living resource with sustained benefit across the academic and political arenas.

She added: “The Pathways to Impact toolkit will help researchers and decision makers alike navigate the complex process of making sure the right evidence finds its way into the right policies. At the same time, its practical guidelines will help create stronger links between academics and politicians, maximising the impact of social science research for public benefit.”

No matter how good your research or engagement plan, you might not be able to have the impact you hoped for on the timescale you seek. It’s important to be aware of these obstacles and work to overcome them with time and changes in circumstance.

The Pathways to Impact tool-kit is the first online resource of its kind with a focus on Wales. It is the culmination of nearly a year of research, including practical advice from interviews with both Welsh policymakers and experienced researchers.

The project is the latest in the Campaign’s work to promote the role of social science expertise in policymaking, including its most recent report The Health of People, looking at how social science can improve public health.

The tool-kit was launched on October 19 at the Pierhead Building in Cardiff, before an audience of Welsh Government and Assembly Members, civil servants, researchers and academics.

Explore Pathways to Impact: A practical guide for researchers

Explore other Campaign reports and publications