The what, who, how and where of making a difference
The starting line: Before embarking on this journey you need to ask yourself why you want policy makers to use your science? What is motivating you to engage with policy makers and why do you care if your science is adopted or not? These are fundamental questions to ask before you head down this path.
If you would like your science to inform policy you first must know a bit about the world of policy. Based on my experiences working with State, Commonwealth and international governments and my background as a marine scientist I have outlined a series of basic steps, a roadmap if you like, to help with your journey. Of course, there is no set route for engaging with policy makers or informing public policy. The way to engage and inform will be dependent upon a number of factors including the jurisdiction, policy priorities, organizational structures, personalities, timing and how ‘political’ the environmental policy/issue is.
This is a challenging space for both policy makers and researchers but there are many out there that have bridged the gap and the steps below may help you to move in the right direction.
1. Prepare for the road ahead – govt priorities
To inform and influence policy, researchers need to spend time learning about the public policy that relates to their area of research. This may seem obvious but it’s a critical step that is often overlooked as being boring or time consuming. This is not a criticism but a reality as in most cases the KPIs of researchers and academics is to publish their work in high impact peer-reviewed papers, which does not align with how policy is developed or implemented. Again, this highlights the motivations around why you want your science to inform policy.
An understanding of what the government’s priorities and policies as they relate to your research area can be found relatively easily through internet searches looking for key documentation such as: election commitments, strategic plans, research and development strategies and so forth. Each jurisdiction will be slightly different in how they share and communicate their information but for the most part the strategic priorities of governments can be found as public records on the World Wide Web. Thinking more broadly than directly related policy areas will also help to give context to government decision-making processes. For example, economic policy imperatives often affect the uptake or acceptance of environmental science and research.
Understanding the constraints of government is also another important element of this journey. For example, fixing a deteriorating State budget and overhauling national health and education systems may mean that other things fall by the wayside. Understanding the priorities of the government of the day will allow you as researchers to have a better understanding of why some things are considered priorities, and others are not.
So, the first step to informing and influencing public policy is to prepare for your journey and see how your research aligns, supports or differs from the governments policy, noting the scale and diversity of public sectors in Australia. As a starting point a useful guide to the Public Sectors in Australia can be found at: http://www.governanceinstitute.com.au/knowledge-resources/public-sector-governance-library/guide-to-the-public-sectors-in-australia/
“Throughout your journey it is important to ask yourselves if you want to make the time and effort to inform public policy.”
2. Pick up passengers – engage with policy makers
Once you have an understanding of the policy priorities relating to your research, the next stop on your journey is to find out ‘who’ to engage with in government. This can be a bit tricky as departmental structures and staff have a tendency to change regularly at all levels. organisational charts and contact lists for government departments are usually accessible through the internet, however getting to the right policy makers in the relevant business areas will take some time and effort. Some of the larger departments have call centres, which can put you in touch with the relevant units and staff.
Another way of finding out the who is to ask your colleagues who they engage with in the government and ask for an introduction or accompany them to relevant meetings and workshops. Building a collegiate network within your own research group will help to provide consistent and regular advice to policy makers. Keeping an eye open for government-led seminar series and information sessions regarding public policy consultation processes will also expose you to the staff leading these initiatives. Building a network with stakeholders who already have a direct relationship with the Government, such as lobby groups, industry associations, NRM groups etc, is yet another mechanism to engage. These groups can end up ‘championing’ your research with the government.
Taking passengers on the journey with you will help to build relationships and networks with key government staff. Keeping in mind that you need to be in the drivers seat if you want your research to be known by the Government and used to inform public policy.
3. Pack for the journey – tailor your communication
Once you have found out the ‘who’ in Government you can start to have conversations about your research, but how? It is important to engage early and regularly with government staff, as the policy cycle has many triggers, one of which is timing. All too often researchers become aware of an environmental policy change or announcement and immediately send their published papers through to the government. Whilst peer-reviewed published papers are an excellent evidence-base for governments, immediate uptake of published studies is not practical. Similarly, just because something is published does not necessarily mean that everyone agrees with the findings and/or recommendations.
A more effective way for researchers to engage is to share your research on a regular basis with policy makers (as early on in your research as possible), build a relationship with staff and be accessible to decision-makers. It is also important to be mindful of the language barrier between science and policy. This is where knowledge brokers or translators come in handy as well as finding ‘champions’ of your research in the Government that can translate your research into ‘organisational’ speak.
When communicating your research keep your science messaging simple, avoid jargon and don’t drown people in facts and figures. Data is extremely important to share with policy makers to help them make informed and evidence-based decisions, but decision makers are rarely scientists so you need to be able to tell a story that they understand. Packaging up your scientific advice in the form of tools, management actions, simple graphics and scenarios are useful ways to inform policy makers. Researchers should also focus on some solutions if possible, not a better definition of a problem.
In developing your advice keep in mind that the criteria policy and decision-makers commonly use to develop public policy includes the social, economic, cultural and biophysical. Remember that policy-makers also have their own audiences (ie, their political leaders), so they will need to communicate the science as well. So packing well for your journey is a must!
4. Ask for directions – understand public policy
Once you have an understanding of the government’s priorities and you have identified who in the government you can discuss and share your research with it’s a good next step to know about how the policy cycle works, so you know where the intervention points are. Important aspects of the policy cycle to be aware of include the following:
Stages of the policy cycle*: issue identification, policy analysis, policy instruments (laws, information, programs), consultation, coordination, decision, implementation, evaluation (*rarely occurs neatly or in order!)
Triggers: Ministerial direction, national processes (eg, Council of Australian Governments), recommendations in reviews, significant events, day-to-day business of Government
Timing and budgets: policy development and implementation follows a strict budget cycle where budget decision making processes occur at certain times of the year (at both the State and Commonwealth levels)
Some policy changes happen quickly and some take many years, such as those triggered by statutory reviews or expiring legislation. Timeliness of your advice is important as most policy is now being driven by shorter cycles, for example 24/7 news, twitter etc. Being aware of the development of significant policies and how they are carried out provides researchers with many opportunities for input and influence. For example, at the Commonwealth level the approach to developing a White Paper is usually to release Issues papers and a Green Paper, both of which may have public submission elements which provide researchers with opportunities to have input. The finalized White Paper will then help researchers to understand the key decisions made and the implementation points for policy development.
In the often-contentious world of environmental policy, constituents (that is, the community, business and industry, lobby groups, and you) commonly influence the policy process. If policy makers are already aware of your research they are likely to pick up the phone and contact you to gain your independent scientific advice. If your research is not known to government, Dr Google is the next best source of information so it is a good idea to keep your online research profiles up to date.
By taking the time to ask for directions the above intervention points should become clear so you can work with policy-makers to help inform public policy.
5. Be ready for road works – policy is political
The make up and operations of governments in Australia has changed dramatically over the past 5-10 years as we see a rapid and dramatic change to a more ‘streamlined’ Public Service. The main role of governments is to provide service delivery to the public, make rules, collect tax, manage Government finances, develop policies and enforce laws and regulations. As a democracy we, the public, vote in the ruling party to Government where public policy is then debated by politicians and created and implemented by public servants. So public policy is political and as such is influenced by political processes, where decisions are often not informed by evidence or research.
By being aware of the likelihood of ‘road works’ along the way it will help researchers to become flexible and adaptable to a changing political (and policy) landscape. The most recent and most obvious example of this can be seen in the way some governments across Australia have made swift policy changes regarding climate change. In some cases major policies have completely ignored or avoided any reference to our changing climate. Policy is political, so be prepared for speed bumps.
The finishing line: Throughout your journey it is important to ask yourselves if you want to make the time and effort to inform public policy. From my experience policy-makers can be quite demanding of researchers time and effort, dependent upon the urgency and level of controversy of the public policy issue at hand.
Having a strategy to engage with policy-makers about your research so you avoid becoming just a random passenger from time to time is important, as is keeping in mind the time, effort and energy this pathway can consume. For those researchers fortunate enough to have a project plan/budget you may like to allocate 2-5% of your time and resources to a ‘policy-making engagement’ function or workshop, for example.
The steps outlined here are just a guide, and like any roadmap it is up to you which direction you take and how many stops you make along the way. You can choose to take the wheel and take the road less travelled or you can pick up a few passengers along the way, take the scenic route and enjoy the ride!
Whichever route you decide on, I’d be interested in hearing about any lessons you pick up on the way.
Ready, set, go…
There is no set route for engaging with policy makers or informing public policy but it’s important to have a good idea of why you want to influence policy and then ask yourself what you intend to do about it. If you’re serious then you should also have a basic idea on how you intend to answer the following four questions. Can you tick the boxes?
What are the government’s priorities?
Who should you engage with?
How will you craft your message?
Where are the best points to intervene?
More info: Sue Pillans email@example.com
Dr Sue Pillans is an Adjunct Research Fellow with the EDG. She is based at the Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, UQ.