Making your research accessible

‘What ifs…’ and worries encountered whilst writing Policy Briefs

By 28 October 2014

Influencing policy can be a tricky business and sitting down to start writing a policy brief can seem like a daunting process. However, important research should have the best possible chance of influencing policy and changing it for the better, which means, that contacting policy actors directly using a policy briefing is a good place to start.

It is all too easy to assume that policy actors will seek out important research or to make up an excuse in order to delay writing a policy brief, but, by seizing the moment and harnessing the originality of recently produced work the chances of positively influencing policy are maximised.

There are plenty of guides and institutional frameworks for writing policy briefs available, but many of them fail to get to the bottom of why researchers, academics and practitioners feel hesitant to simply sit down and write one. Researchers may feel that it is not within their remit to communicate their research findings; but who better to talk about the topic on which they are an expert? The mere mention of a ‘Policy Brief’ can evoke a fear of the unknown or complexity; but writing a one to two page brief is surely simpler and less time consuming than writing an academic paper?

The issue that there are no readily available resources for researchers and practitioners who feel very nervous about writing a policy brief needs to be addressed. Proactive researchers and practitioners who are already convinced of the value of communications churn out policy briefs helped by online guides and by their Communications departments (if they are part of a larger institution). However, for those who are pushed for time, do not have an affiliation to large institutions or who unexpectedly encounter problems during the process, there is no source of advice to enable them to overcome these obstacles.

Many of the perceived problems researchers face when writing policy briefs can be unpacked and even solved with some careful consideration and the right advice. No more ‘what ifs…’ should stand in the way of important research reaching policy.

I will tackle two ‘what ifs…’ that make writing a policy brief feel unnecessarily difficult and offer some suggested solutions.

  1. What if the message from my research findings is opposed to popular narratives, widely held public opinion or the current policy climate?

This is a common problem encountered early on in the process of engaging policy actors. From the beginning, be more strategic and precise with the planning and distribution of the policy brief. Choose policy actors to send the brief to at the start of the process and think about their views on the topic continually whilst writing. Do not overstress statements that are obviously at odds with the current opinion/policy, as the brief may be discarded without being read. Avoid giving concrete policy recommendations, instead, outline alternative policy options as objectively as possible and let the evidence speak for itself. If the evidence is strong enough your preferred option should be clear to the policy maker. People tend to remember or use evidence that is salient with their own views, keep this in mind, and from the outset frame the policy brief in an appropriate manner. It’s also important to remember that policy networks are made up of many different types of policy actors, who share many different views. It’s perfectly possible, even if your research is at odds with the dominant narratives, that there will be someone who is responsive to your research. Look at the actors across a policy community and make sure you start by targeting those that are prepared to listen.

  1. What if my research is collaboratively produced? Is writing a policy brief too tricky?

A collaborative policy brief is tricky to write but it may have a better chance of being able to positively influence policy.

First check with all the authors and institutions involved in producing the research/project that a policy brief can be written and obtain the relevant permissions. Then, start from what is ordinarily the last stage and agree upon the policy implications or recommendations to be drawn from the research. From a point of consensus, divide up responsibilities for planning, writing and distributing the policy brief between the authors and proceed as normal.

The important thing to remember with collaboratively produced policy briefs is to utilise all of the resources available to all of the participants. It will be useful to compile a list of each participant’s contacts within the policy sphere and ideas about how to distribute the brief. Collaboratively produced policy briefs have additional advantages including: shared funding, shared expertise, shared burdens, additional sources of support, more time/effort input, a larger network at its disposal for distribution and a smaller time requirement from each participant. It could also be reasonably assumed that like a collaborative paper with higher citations, a collaborative brief could have a higher readership, enhancing the potential of successfully influencing policy.

For more ‘what ifs…’ and their accompanying suggestions visit R2A’s How to Guide for writing Policy Briefs, or if your worries are not directly addressed there, you can submit questions to the R2A Help Desk.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

  • Andrew Clappison

    Excellent post Laura, thanks! I think the focus on evidence is important in the first “what if”, but I think we often make the assumption that policy actors understand and know what robust and rigorous evidence looks like – when of course this is not the case. We could and perhaps should encourage researchers to be more explicit about this in their policy briefs, but I think researcher’s own perception of what counts as rigorous evidence can be different which raises a number of difficult issues. There seems to be a massive swing towards RCT’s and other evaluation approaches in the development field, and I do wonder given the huge wave of support behind this type of research whether policy actors will start looking out for evidence produced using RCT methods. This could be dangerous as this bias may exclude other types of valuable research tha tmay be more context relevant, and possibly lead to the ‘blind take-up’ of evidence that is either from a single study or is not relevant to a particular socio-economic context. Where do the “what ifs” end! What is clear is that there needs to be an equal and fair way of grading evidence that does not lead to outright methodological bias.

  • Laura ffrench-Constant

    Andrew, I agree that it is tricky finding an end point to the What ifs!

    With regards RCTs, I worry that they are being applied within disciplines that they are not always best suited. There is a growing call for RCTs to investigate the uptake and attitudes towards policy briefs, and more generally investigating the attitudes of policy makers when other techniques of surveying and case studies are equally as informative (and notable attempts have faced severe limitations).

    It would be interesting to know if any policy actors already have guidelines/ a grading system for evaluating evidence or if it is left to the discretion of the individual? With guidelines, there is always a problem that they are left open to interpretation, abuse, or that valuable sources will be missed because they do not fit the criteria.

  • James Hatton

    Hi Laura, great post. Targeting policy actors most likely to listen is of course very sensible. However, repeatedly targetting the same actors could in some circumstances be deemed partisan by other actors and could have implications for your overall credibility within the policy community. I wonder how researchers wishing to retain an impartial reputation, and access to policymakers from accross a policy field, can avoid this problem whilst still building strong relationships when such opportunities present themselves.

  • Laura ffrench-Constant

    Hi James, I think that over-reliance on the same policy actors is a problem sometimes for researchers who utilise contacts. I think that trying to widen the scope of who has influence over the policy process is important to stop overuse but also to increase the likelihood of ideas being picked up by targeting a variety of different actors. Policy actors exist in an environment that is shaped by other actors. There is of course a balance between targeting more actors and losing the ability to be specific enough to appeal to their interests and having not enough time to research fully!