Building a strategy

Influencing and engagement: Why let research programmes have all the fun?

By 05/03/2014

Is it time for us to start applying some of the strategies for bridging research to policy used so effectively at a project level to our institutions as a whole? Could a more coherent approach to policy engagement and research communications applied cross-organisationally lead to greater impact?

There is a chasm to be crossed in many research organisations and think tanks. It is the deep gap that exists between high level institutional strategies and project based impact plans. Many project funders pile pressure onto researchers to develop theories of change and detailed research communication strategies, but there is little incentive for research organisations to look at the policy and knowledge landscapes they operate in at an institutional level. Is it really only campaigning organisations, like international NGOs with their advocacy frameworks, which need to take a holistic approach to policy engagement?

The challenge for many research producing organisations, made up of multiple centres, projects and programmes, is how can they be greater than the sum of their parts? Even academic institutions and think tanks with a clearly articulated mission of actively engaging in policy discourse risk entirely vacating key policy debates or abandoning prime influencing opportunities when certain projects come to an end.

Research programme vs institutional priorities

I recently co-facilitated a series of workshops in Nepal as part of the Think Tanks Initiative Policy Engagement and Communications Programme, with an inspiring group of researchers and communications professionals from fifteen South Asian think tanks. They were all interested in the development of institutional level engagement strategies and were simply not willing to restrict their planning to a specific project. Or as one participant put it, “Why should the research programmes have all the fun?”

They each developed a clear policy engagement goal, or set of goals, that reflected their vision of change. For some these were softer changes in the nature of the policy discourse for others quite specific changes in the direction of policy in a particular area. They then mapped their context and gained a real understanding of how change happens in relation to their hoped for long term impact. The lack of a specific set of project or research goals did not seem to dilute the richness of their discussions. But it did lead to a different set of answers. They each looked at their emerging institutional level impact strategies in relation to an earlier exercise that had assessed their capacity in relation to policy engagement and communications. Areas they needed to invest in at an institutional level whether: social media, publications or knowledge management skills, quickly emerged. As did key relationships, networks and knowledge of policy processes they needed to grow.

See the Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy from India take a dizzying six second journey around this strategic planning process:

Breaking down barriers

This experience also helped me to reflect on IDS’ approach to institutional level strategic planning. We too have been on this journey in trying to identify a wider set of engagement priorities. Take the Post2015 debate for instance. Here is a prime example of something that cuts across projects and programmes and research centres. By actively prioritising it in a cross institutional strategy and mapping out our strengths and weaknesses and the key areas of potential engagement, whether in the media, UN processes or the UK Government and Parliament, we have been able to add real value to the work of our project teams and their partners. Some of these groups are explicitly focused on this debate, such as Participate. Others find this framing essential, using it to push their research up the agendas of key policy audiences. We have been able to create a more enabling environment for their work by actively identifying key influencing and engagement opportunities (and challenges), building relevant networks and alliances and prioritising the timely profiling and intelligent framing of their outputs.

This process has also led to a great deal of cross-organisational collaboration, breaking down the barriers between research teams, projects and multi-sited research centres. So, whilst all our engagement and communications activities remain entirely based on our research (there is not retro fitting of evidence to advocacy objectives here) we are not wholly driven by the ubiquitous project log frame which cannot always facilitate the type of policy entrepreneurship needed to engage effectively at a national or international level.

There are a wealth of academic papers, blogs, donor guides and other materials on effective research communications and the incorporation of impact strategies into projects. However, there is far less about cross institutional approaches. Some commentators claim that cross institutional strategies focused on policy outcomes are simply too broad but is it time to challenge this? I would love to hear from those who have experience in this area. We need to share our learning and explore ways that researchers and communications professionals can work together to build a strategic framework at an institutional level to support those committed to making sure their research makes a difference.


This blog post has been produced as part of the Think Tank Initiative’s Policy Engagement and Communications (PEC) programme. However,  these are the author’s personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of TTI. You can find all ongoing outputs related to this project via the PEC mini-site on Research to Action. To get updates from the PEC programme and be part of the discussion sign-up to our RSS or email updates. You can also follow our progress via Twitter using the following hashtag #ttipec