This packed policy week event convened a lively discussion about how best to engage in dialogue with policymakers when communicating research around contentious policy areas. The panel was chaired by Professor Francesca Gains, and included Martin Stanley the author of ‘How To Be a Civil Servant’, Dr Patrick Diamond of Queen Mary’s University London and David Richards from the University of Manchester.
The varied panel of speakers addressed the thorny question of how to speak truth unto power, especially when communicating either unclear research findings or research with potentially contentious policy implications. Martin Stanley began proceedings with his five top tips for influencing the civil service.
Stanley advised that researchers should not shy away from contentious research findings but instead embrace the fact that contentious issues can sometimes be beneficial due to existing levels of visibility and discussion within the specific policy area. Stanley’s second tip was that timing is absolutely key in communicating research evidence and that researchers should engage with the policy process early, before the process starts to concretise in a certain direction. The third tip he offered was to think carefully about who to influence, and consider the hierarchy of advisers and civil servants within the civil service itself. Tip number four was that tone is critical and researchers should aim to empathise with busy policymakers without appearing condescending or dismissive. The final tip Stanley gave was that clarity is crucial and communications should be jargon free. More from Martin Stanley can be found on the Civil Servant section of the Policy@Manchester website.
Next, Patrick Diamond gave an overview of his experiences within government, think tanks and recent post within academia. Diamond discussed the ambiguities that exist between experts and society, and the paradox that whilst the use of evidence is rising, general trust in experts is declining. A common thread running throughout Diamond’s talk was the institutionalising of evidence informed policy processes, and how evidence institutions such as NICE (the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) can help to unpack the nuances and subtleties within the broader systematic usage of evidence.
Finally, Dave Richards spoke about his forthcoming research entitled “The Westminster Model and the ‘Indivisibility of the Political and Administrative Elite’: A Convenient Myth Whose Time Is Up?” Richards spoke about the interplay of ministers and civil servants, the agenda of reform within the civil service and how these new interactions are changing the nature of accountability.
During the subsequent question and answer session involving the audience, a key theme that was returned to and debated was the issue of institutionalising evidence informed policy making. Panellists discussed whether the concept of creating centres to generate and systematise evidence in order to make policy (such as NICE and the Monetary Policy Committee) is at odds with the democratic process. Panellists also explored whether these evidence institutions are making operational or political decisions.
Another interesting question raised by the audience was what exactly is meant by the term expert, and is the concept is itself constructed by political processes and a larger framework of values.