I was lucky enough to attend the three-day AHRC course, ‘Engaging with Government’, at the Institute for Government in London in March 2016. It was a superbly run course, with all aspects of the training obviously well planned and delivered, and some really inspiring guest speakers and course facilitators (Jill Rutter and Katie Thorpe). It was also a real privilege to spend three days with some very smart, passionate early career researchers, whose research interests ranged from genocide to secret intelligence to housing and architecture to live music.
The main messages of the course were that civil servants, Parliamentarians and ‘thinktanks’ are often open to academic research BUT they are always very busy and appreciate being told solutions as well as identifying problems, so to ensure that our research is presented as simply as possible.
We learned many top tips, but these next five are what I will personally be working on over the next few months – I hope that they’re useful to your own research.
- Get in contact with those people in government who are directly involved with your field of interest
House of Commons and House of Lords libraries – these libraries prepare research briefings for ministers and Peers and their staff. Find out the author’s name(s) of any briefings relevant to your research and contact them to let them know about your research. A searchable list of briefings can be found here.
Select Committees – both the House of Lords and the House of Commons have Select Committees, which deal with specific aspects of government or specific issues. Work out which ones are relevant to your work, then follow them on Twitter and sign up for press alerts; also try to establish a relationship with Committee staff (e.g. ‘specialists’ and researchers). For links to lists of committees and committee members, click here.
All-Party Parliamentary Groups – informal cross-party groups for interested MPs and Lords, ranging from education to jazz to beer. For a register of groups and contacts, click here.
Civil Service directors of research – each of the government departments should have a director of research (or chief analyst or director of learning) – ring the relevant department to find out who this is and make yourself known to them.
- Triple-write all your publications
In order for your work to be as useful as possible to the widest number of people, consider preparing three versions of it: a journal article, a briefing sheet for ministers and civil servants, and a press release. These will all need to be written to suit each target audience – you can hold off sending out the briefing sheet and press release until your journal article has been published in order not to cause any problems with the publisher and to maximise impact .
Journal article: aimed at academics, so use of jargon is fine. Paywalls are restrictive and off-putting so ensure that your work is open access where possible.
Briefing sheet: aim for three pages, maximum six, use bullet points, ensure the main thesis is encapsulated in the first paragraph. Keep it simple and avoid jargon.
Press release: aimed at journalists so help them to find the ‘hook’ around which they can write their story.
For more about ‘triple writing’ and engaging with policy-makers more broadly, read this article.
- Ensure that your message is clear and engaging
Civil servants can often be more nuanced than ministers, who need definite solutions to problems rather than caveats and academic phraseology such as “on the one hand this, on the other hand that”. To help policy-makers and decision-makers quickly engage with how your research will be helpful to them, use phrases like: ‘This is the field and my latest research shows that ….’ and ‘This is why my research is useful to you …’ Tell stories and use drama and emotion to engage people’s interest – make people care.
- Build your online profile
Having a good online profile is crucial (and is the reason I started this blog!). One thing which became very apparent was how much Google is used as a research tool by civil servants and Parliamentary researchers (who often do not get past the first page of Google results), so make sure you appear on the first page of Google and that what comes up in the results is engaging. To climb Google’s page rankings, be sure to use keywords and link back to your blog as much as possible from other websites – cross-posting is one way of doing this. WordPress is easy to use and works well with Google – you can either have a personal blog (emmawebster.org) or one which is about your field (Live Music Exchange) – aim to update it every week if possible. Twitter is also highly recommended as a means of building contacts, keeping on top of latest research and government business, and getting your own research out there – combining your research postings with more personal stuff is not easy but aim to emulate other academics who you think use Twitter effectively.
- Keep up with the latest issues in Parliament
The sooner you can engage with policy-makers and decision-makers, the better, so keep an eye out for future ‘windows of opportunity’ for which your research may be relevant and useful. To ensure that you are up-to-date with issues within your field of interest, read the Queen’s speech at the start of each session as it sets out the government’s policies and proposed legislative programme for the new parliamentary session – for the Queen’s speech 2015, click here. The other place to keep an eye on Parliamentary business to track current bills, keep up with committees, and follow topical issues.
Finally, keep an eye out for the next ‘Engaging with Government’ course – it was a truly excellent three days and comes highly recommended!