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How the 'Engaging with Government' course benefits academics

Seán William

Dr Seán Williams, University of Sheffield

Both government and academia have a lot to gain from finding new ways to work better together, as delegates on the three-day Engaging with Government programme will learn this week.

But while the course, which is run by the Institute for Government, provides an excellent primer on the policy making process and will help participants develop the skills necessary to pursue the policy implications of their research, other benefits of attending may be more of a surprise.

“It was incredibly stimulating and did me provoke me into doing more policy stuff, but I think the real benefit for me came in other areas,” says Dr Seán Williams, Lecturer in German and European Cultural History at the University of Sheffield, who attended the course in 2018.

“I applied because I had been an Arts and Humanities Research Council/BBC New Generation Thinker in 2016, which had led to many media opportunities that I really enjoyed and found very positive.

“It also taught me that there were aspects of my historical work that might be relevant for policy makers and I wanted to explore that more, including my knowledge of German culture and the cultural history of the hairdresser, which is increasingly relevant as government debates the gig economy.”

Dr Williams believes that the course's real strength is the way it helps academics see their work from a different perspective and understand how shifting the focus of their presentation can make their research more relevant to different audiences.

“When academics try and engage with government, very often they think 'this is my work and I need to go out and pitch it on my terms',” he says.

“They rely on very academic language and don't really understand the needs of government, the way it works or its rules.

“But the course gives you exposure to the people on the other side of the table - as well as academics who have made a success of these conversations - who talk very freely about how government works.

“There were a lot of people speaking from their professional experience, both ex civil servants, leaders of think tanks and academics as well. They really 'got' academics' reasons for wanting to engage.

“Those conversations open your eyes to what it is that government wants and how it differs from academia. You realise that it is all about relationships; about how one thing leads to another and how you start off may not be how you finish. 

“It's very useful for academics to see how other industries work, so that when they are thinking about impact, they are automatically thinking in this way. Without this knowledge you can't really pitch yourself in an effective way.”

Dr Williams describes his experience of the course as “overwhelmingly positive”.

“It was fun, the group was very collegial,” he says.

“What I learned has really helped me build up my media profile and been fed back through me into my department and my impact work.”

Dr Williams top tips from 'Engaging with government'.

  1. Think beyond government
    While the course is really important for understanding government and policy, what you learn is also broadly applicable to working with many groups outside academia, including community organisations and the media. The course is very good for helping academics reassess the broad range of their knowledge and start looking at their work in terms of what is interesting and relevant to other people, rather than just ourselves and our academic peers.
  2. Be proactive, flexible and opportunistic
    Don't get to attached to a set plan. Get out there, meet people and when something works - run with it, make the most of it and build on it.
  3. Relationships are key
    Networking is important, but it shouldn't just be about getting to know the 'right' people. What's also key is just being available. Talk to people on the phone, offer advice, even if it doesn't seem to directly lead anywhere for you. Focus on forming relationships that are mutual and play the long game: opportunities will emerge over time.
  4. Be willing to adapt your working practice to fit in with other people
    This can be difficult if you are at a university with very regimented working practices. But if you can adapt how you do things it will help. You can't expect a government body to work to academic timescales.
  5. People are interested in your work beyond the information it contains
    Consider changing your emphasis or the way you present to reflect what is interesting to your audience. Having a video abstract or speaking the language of your audience might help you better reach people. 

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