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Practical tips for researchers engaging with politicians and policy-makers across the UK

Emily Commander
Emily Commander, Strategic Lead, Public Policy, AHRC

Many researchers in the arts and humanities want to forge stronger links with the government departments and agencies where their work can be practically applied.

But to be effective they need to fine tune their message - and focus on talking the language of government, according to Emily Commander, Strategic Lead, Public Policy at the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), pictured above.

  1. Be very clear about what you want to achieve.

Many people realise that a good way to have 'impact' is to influence policy. But having impact is not an end in itself. So, you need to think about what you want to achieve: do you want to make a change in the law; persuade your local council to roll out an initiative that will make difference to people's lives; or are you just trying to get your discipline on the agenda? Whatever it is, it’s essential that you’re clear about your focus, so spend some time scoping out your project, and talking to experts about what might be possible or realistic.

  1. Know your audience.

This might sound simplistic, but it's crucial to get this right. Think about whether it is central government that you want to talk to, or a metropolitan mayor? Perhaps you even need to tackle the issue at a European or global level. Perhaps it would be most effective if you made your point via a parliamentary select committee. You need to find out who does what, and where, so that you know who to target. And you need to get to grips with the relevant policy mechanisms so you can work out where you can apply pressure most effectively.

  1. Understand the ways policy-makers communicate with each other

Remember that policy-makers don’t have much time. Your first challenge is to seek and destroy: take everything in your message that is non-essential and get rid of it, even if it is important to you. It's essential to boil down what you are saying, focus on the core message, and find the clearest and most succinct way possible to communicate it. To help you do this, go back to Tip 1 and think about what you are trying to achieve. Every time you write a sentence, think about your core objective and ask yourself: is what I'm saying relevant? Use non-technical vocabulary, and translate your work into plain English… without being patronising! Use short sentences. Try writing everything you need to say on one side of A4 and use bullet points for emphasis. It might be helpful to imagine that the reader only has one minute to skim your document and only allow yourself this amount of reading time to convince them that they should care about what you are saying.

  1. Work your networks

Once you have decided what you want to achieve and how you want to say it, you need to identify the right person to talk to. Unless you’re very well connected, it probably won't be enough to simply target the one person you really need: they may not be interested, they may be busy, or they may have moved on by the time you get to speak to them. But do not despair: you don’t need to know all the right people already, and you can use your existing networks. Try to think about the 'three degrees of separation' rule to see who can get you a step further along to the path where you want to be. Ask AHRC whether they can open some doors for you. Use social media. Try and meet useful people for coffee. And don't be shy: with each meeting you are bringing yourself one step closer.

  1. Break out of your silo

Although academia is increasingly interdisciplinary, there is still a tendency to stick to departmental and subject siloes. Policy-makers do not think in this way. Whilst, for example, the Ministry of Justice may think in terms of law and criminology, it also has a use for modern languages, anthropology, history, literature, the sciences, and many other disciplines. A major mistake academics make is to forget that the policy world is structured differently to their own world, with a different culture and assumptions. To be successful you need to map your own universe onto the framework and priorities of the policy world.

Before starting at AHRC, Emily spent 15 years as a clerk in the House of Commons, with stints working on legislation and for select committees.


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