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Time to re-think the unthinkable: how can we get our research messages discussed by politicians?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital23 September 2013

Chris Brown

The party conference season is a useful barometer for those who champion the more widespread use of evidence within policy making. Among the announcements and denouncements, we start to get an understanding of the gamut of policy positions being developed by the main political parties and, importantly, by those who advise them. These are, to use the ancient Greek idea, the nascent policy “agoras” (pdf), or gathering places for policy.
They matter because they illustrate that whoever wins the election will have already devised their manifesto for government. This positioning of perspectives will also frame the nature of the evidence policy-makers will or won’t engage with once in office. Clearly the scope of any policy agora (the breadth of the arguments it contains) depends on the extent to which ministers wish to let their civil servants investigate potential solutions for particular policy problems. But if the trend set by the current education secretary continues, then the positioning both of evidence and of those who offer advice worth listening to, is something that will need to happen long before the electioneering for 2015 has even commenced.

The year ahead, as a result, represents the period when we can work with potential future governments to re-think the unthinkable: to champion new ideas at the expense of the current ones and to reposition the country’s journey over the course of the next electoral cycle. This of course takes time and effort, but it also requires an understanding of the appropriate strategies to employ.
Historically academics, in addition to their day to day business of writing journal articles, have been encouraged to ensure that their research outputs are both digestible and applicable: that what they write can not only be easily understood, but that it is also immediately ‘policy ready’. Often efforts to do so result in frustration. This is because while useful, these two qualities alone are unlikely to lead to a greater uptake of research by policy-makers: ideas may still sit outside of the policy-agora or policy-makers may simply fail to see any need to act on what is presented. Importantly, then, what is also required is substantial ground-work to enhance the “social robustness” of any idea – to promote its importance and the need to act as a result.
Efforts to enhance social robustness can be directed via the general media, social media or through cultivating links with special advisors and others who matter, but the ultimate endgame of this action is to advance ideas towards what Malcolm Gladwell describes as the “tipping point“: ensuring issues enter and dominate the mainstream and so must be addressed.
As well as relating to general ideas, however, we can also direct similar efforts towards promoting ourselves as experts, whose advice should be sought. Again, the result is the same, with those considered to be worth listening to finding it easier to catch the ears of policy makers than those who are not (as can be evidenced by those particularly skilled in this approach – Ben Goldacre for instance, provides a prime example of what can be achieved here). So let’s watch this week’s Labour Party conference with interest and see if we can assess not only which of our research might be in favour, but also whether there is scope for enhancing the social robustness of the messages that are not – and make sure they are ready in time for next year.
Dr. Chris Brown’s new book, Making Evidence Matter, published by IOE Press, is out now