Impact Practitioners

Reviewing advice for policy influence: The dos and don’ts

By 24/11/2022

This 11-page systematic review  by researchers Kathryn Oliver and Paul Cairney reviews over 80 practical resources on how to influence policymaking. The authors included academic, policy, and grey publications that offered advice to academics or policymakers on how to engage better with each other. The paper is useful – and unusual – in presenting almost as many questions and challenges as recommendations on how to go about influencing based on the literature. It suggests that engagement is a career choice, not an event.

The paper identifies major inconsistencies across the resources reviewed, for example in what counts as ‘good evidence’, how to best communicate it, what policy engagement is actually for, and how far academics should go to be influential. Despite lots of commentary about the processes and contexts affecting evidence use in policy and practice, the authors point out that there is no common understanding of the concepts of ‘use’ or ‘impact’ and little consensus on the relative importance of different factors on achieving ‘impact’.

They note that the advice in the documents they reviewed might even reinforce existing power dynamics and the under-representation of women, people of colour, and academics who do not fit into the traditional narrow mould. Much of the literature makes unrealistic assumptions, for example that researchers will always be available for engagement activities, and that they can afford both time and travel costs. This creates barriers for many scientists, and results in a low diversity of voices available to influence policy.

Despite these limitations, the authors produce eight ‘top tips’ – which they point out are largely common sense:

  1. Produce high-quality research
  2. Make it relevant, readable, and overall communicate it well
  3. Understand policy processes
  4. Be accessible to policymakers, engage with them routinely and flexibly
  5. Decide if you want to be an advocate or a neutral broker
  6. Build networks to gain better access
  7. Be entrepreneurial
  8. Reflect on activities and consequences

So, what should you do to more effectively engage in policymaking? Unfortunately, you shouldn’t expect either clear answers or manuals on how to behave. According to Oliver and Cairney, you should instead try to understand the wider debate and choices that might shape your career. While the eight tips could provide you with a general idea of how to approach policy influencing, be mindful of the wider issues, limitations, and dilemmas, and try to find ways to navigate them that work for you.

This article is part of our initiative, R2A Impact Practitioners. To find out more, please click here.