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/