Making your research accessible

Is the age of the Policy Brief over?

By 30 October 2014

What does the ever increasing availability of an internet connection mean for a policy brief? Policy Briefs have become a popular means for researchers to speak to policy audiences, but there are reasons to suggest that their popularity may be declining.

The increased availability of the internet for policy actors may mean one of two things: the slow decline of the policy brief as the ‘go to’ form of policy communication or the reestablishment of its popularity within a multi-method communications strategy.

A working paper written by Simon Batchelor at IDS explores the ‘information ecosystems’ of policy makers’ and suggests that with ever increasing internet connectivity policy makers may start looking for research more actively, contrary, to the established idea that policy makers are too busy to look for information themselves. Preliminary findings from the study conducted across Ghana, Nepal, India and Ethiopia found that the ‘information ecosystem is changing’.  Preliminary data implies that policy makers spend more time finding their own information rather than reading briefings or consulting information sourced by assistants.

What does this mean for policy briefs? The research seems to suggest that policy briefs are becoming less important in the face of increasing internet connection, which enables policy makers to research more widely themselves. Furthermore, the phenomenon appears to be widespread, with research by Talbot and Talbot on policy makers in the UK finding that a surprising amount (55%) of civil servants directly accessed academic research in full.

These research findings contravene the conventional wisdom that a policy brief is the most appropriate format of information for a busy policy maker and the most efficient way of attempting to influence policy. However, policy briefs have not lost their value completely in the face of policy makers’ evolving behaviour. A hard copy of a policy brief cannot be deleted quickly or inadvertently make its way to the spam folder of an email inbox, unlike electronic information. A hard copy has the potential to be lost at the bottom of a giant pile of paper or have a mug of coffee spilt on it, but, it also has the potential to pass the ‘breakfast test’, being scanned whilst a morning meal is hastily consumed, with the possibility of influencing policy retained. A policy brief also acts as a physical object that can be presented to policy makers at a meeting, or even provide an excuse for setting up a meeting in the first place.

It should not be forgotten that policy makers will always be busy, even if their information sourcing patterns are evolving. Every policy maker needs breakfast, which leaves an opening for a policy brief. Policy Briefs may increasingly be accessed online, and a tablet or smartphone may eventually replace the hard copy, but as long as policy makers are busy, there seems to be little chance of them scanning an academic paper when they have five minutes to spare, whereas they may engage with a policy brief.

In an increasingly digital age with an ever busier ‘information ecosystem’ perhaps what is needed is a mixed model for policy communications. A recently produced Toolkit  by GDNet argued that videos and data visualisation are necessary to reinvigorate research communications with policy, but noted that even engaging and dynamic multimedia videos cannot ‘replace a policy brief in its depth and detail’.

Videos are hailed by the toolkit as a means of making a policy briefs ‘more popular’, a complimentary product instead of its replacement. Duncan Green similarly blogged on the need to diversify research communications outputs, mentioning the virtues of infographics and youtube pieces as accompaniments to research reports because they improve access.

The end of the age of the policy brief is not a foregone conclusion given increasing internet connectivity. The survey of UK policy makers by Talbot and Talbot, mentioned above, rates the policy brief/research report as the most widely consulted source of research information, concluding that policy makers need concise or ‘pre-digested’ information. The policy brief will have to evolve simultaneously with the increasingly crowded, ever changing ‘information ecosystem’. Perhaps the age of the alternative policy brief has dawned, ushering in multimedia briefs over morning coffee alongside the traditional policy brief.

Image courtesy of Jean Marc Cote/commons.wikimedia.org

  • Nyasha M

    This is really quite interesting and challenges what we think we know about how policy makers access information. I think there is room for the policy brief to evolve and meet the needs of the changing information ecosystem. I definitely think there is still room for the traditional policy brief especially where there is an opportunity to speak to policy makers face-to-face and hand them something concrete to walk away with. Perhaps, it is now more important than before to ensure that these policy briefs are made available digitally with some of the extra multimedia bells and whistles? How would you advise today’s researcher to tackle the need for concise information in light of this evolving information ecosystem? Great post by the way!

  • Laura ffrench-Constant

    It is very interesting work I agree- it will be interesting to see if the final conclusions of these studies further confirm the extent that ‘information ecosystems’ are changing, or if the change is only temporary. I would suspect that the changes will be more long-lasting and I agree that policy briefs will evolve as a result but that a paper copy of a policy brief cannot be replaced completely. Digital policy briefs are very important to diversify the audience they can reach, increasingly so when policy actors are searching for their sources independently with greater internet access. There are plenty of online repositories where policy briefs can be uploaded, such as Policy Library, these may become increasingly important given the changing ecosystem. I think that it is important to remember that these online policy briefs must be formatted appropriately, even more so than with paper copies, because figures and tables must look good on smart phones and tablets, and absolutely everything that needs to be known has to be on the first page because attention spans are even shorted on the internet. The internet presents a great opportunity to reach different policy actors, I agree with Duncan Green’s idea that multiple outputs such as videos and tweets are needed as extra advertisement. Thanks Nyasha!

  • Clare Gorman

    Thank you Laura. You question relates to something I’ve been chewing over for a while now.

    Somewhere along the line, policy briefs appear to have become a proxy for policy influence. Despite questions raised concerning their value, they remain remain a popular tool for
    researchers seeking to influence policy. While there has been some discussion about their impact, little attention seems to have been paid to effectiveness of the guidelines on which they are based, nor the skills training provided to researchers to help them write them.

    Far from unlocking the ‘policy potential’ of research, I have found some guidelines tend to over-simplify the complex task of policy engagement. As a result, they are leading to ineffectual Policy Briefs, weak both in terms of a solid evidence-base and relevant policy recommendations.

    Individuals and organsiations can illustrate how committed they are to influencing policy by the number of policy briefs they produce. The emphasis is therefore on producing something that can be recognised as a policy brief rather than actually having policy influence.

    Guidance on how to develop policy briefs needs to include hard questions about what
    researchers themselves are capable of delivering in terms of evidence and informed opinion. This will still apply whether policy briefs enter a new dawn or not.

    • Laura ffrench-Constant

      Hi Clare,

      I agree that guidelines for writing policy briefs should not over-simplify the process, a policy brief cannot be abstracted from the process of policy engagement. Guidelines should emphasise the need to plan with policy in mind and stress the importance of follow up policy engagement to maximise the chances of influence.

      Do you think that organisations are churning out policy briefs as a way of evidencing influence, potentially as a way of securing future funding?