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Communications

How to communicate
effectively to
policy makers

Introduction

The difficulty of communicating complex knowledge to policy makers has generated a substantial literature.  Ironically despite this wealth of literature the evidence on what works in communicating scientific findings is mixed[1] although there is a growing consensus that the starting point should always be your audience(s). This may seem obvious but understanding how policy makers’ process evidence and the context in which they operate is key[2]. Policy makers often have too much information to digest so will use heuristics to filter information and make decisions quickly.  So ask yourself how can I help policy makers process what it is I want to say?  What should my communication strategy be?  What format should I communicate in and when should I communicate?  Finding the right time to communicate can also effect whether you have a receptive audience or not. 

Whichever communication route you choose though, remain credible – policy makers need to be able to trust your findings so do build a reputation for objective, high quality research.  Clarity, relevance and reliability of research findings are also considered to be an important factor affecting the uptake of research evidence by policy makers[3].  In addition, although it is now well recognised that policy is determined as much by the decision making context as by the actual research evidence[4], policy makers’ perceptions forms an important part of their uptake, or not, of evidence and being clear and relevant will certainly help. 

Where to begin?  Effective engagement should be a two-way process and not based on a ‘knowledge deficit model[5]’ of science communication – the assumption being that if we just gave policy makers the objective facts or more evidence they’ll become rational decision makers.  This isn’t because policy makers are irrational and aren’t interested in what might ‘work’ but because evidence is only one factor that policy makers will take into account in formulating policy.  Evidence informs but does not determine policy.  In addition we all have our own built in psychologies of how we make sense of the world and filter information.  There’s no easy answer but there are a number of factors that you can take into account to maximise your chances of effective policy engagement and ensure that in communicating science you remain honest and credible.

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Increase your visibility

Relationships don’t just appear out of thin air but there are steps you can take to harness the conditions for effective relationships and communication with policy makers.  The value of being ‘known’ and trusted as a reliable academic source cannot be overstated - increasing your visibility through blogging or other forms of social media can help raise your profile and help policy makers discover you and your research.  Providing accessible work is also key to effective engagement as most academic articles are behind journal pay walls, often inaccessible to policy makers like parliamentary and government staff.  It’s no surprise then that academic blog posts are deemed to be an increasingly effective way to translate your academic research[6] and succinctly communicate your findings, particularly for time-poor MPs or Local Councilors.     

Frame your evidence

The way you present or frame your evidence can have a fundamental effect on how it is understood and whether it’s taken up by policy makers[7].  ‘We are predisposed to accept, reject or interpret information based on a plethora of mental shortcuts, including a tendency to take on face value information that seems to confirm our worldview'[8].  Framing refers to the ways in which issues are understood, portrayed and categorised.  This goes back to the point made above about needing to understand your audience and learning how to ‘frame’ your evidence rather than expecting the evidence to speak for itself[9].  Using stories or tailoring your message can help with framing your evidence.  You’ll find out more about this in the downloadable booklet below. 

Translate your findings more effectively

Another strategy[10] that academics can take to increase the uptake of their evidence is to translate findings more effectively whether that is by writing accessible blogs, systematic reviews or tailoring research into policy briefs.  Policy makers often need timely and reliable access to summaries of the best available evidence to inform policy decisions.  For example The Department of Health and Social Care’s Areas of Research Interest document states that the single most useful offer from the academic community in policy making is the synthesis of existing information.

Communicate scientific uncertainty

Confronted with claims that we are living in a ‘post-truth’ society the need for honesty and communicating your scientific uncertainty should always be the default position.  Although there is limited literature on what the effects are of communicating epistemic uncertainty it has been suggested that ‘transparency might build rather than undermine trust in authorities’[11].  And after all trust is key as cultivating relationships that build trust and credibility with policy makers, be this parliamentary staff or civil servants, can help maximise your chances of policy impact[12].   You’ll find some tentative pointers on how to communicate uncertainty in the booklet below.

However you communicate the characteristics of research evidence have been widely reported as factors which affect uptake of research evidence by policy makers.  Clarity, relevance and reliability of research findings are considered important factors to facilitate take up of evidence use[13] and improve your chance of effective communication with decision makers.  In addition understanding the world from the perspective of your audience and appreciating the complex policy processes in which they operate will enable you to communication more effectively[14].

How to communicate effectively to policy makers

  • You can find out more about increasing your effectiveness in science communication in the downloadable booklet below.

How can I help policy makers process what it is I want to say? 

 Download booklet

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References

[1] Langer, L., Tripney, J., Gough, D. (2016) The Science of Using Science: Researching the Use of Research Evidence in Decision-Making. London: EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, UCL Institute of Education, University College London.
[2] Cairney, P., Kwiatkowski, R. How to communicate effectively with policymakers: combine insights from psychology and policy studies. Palgrave Commun 3, 37 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-017-0046-8
[3] Oliver, K. & Cairney, P. (2019) The dos and don’ts of influencing policy: A systematic review of advice to academics. Palgrave Communications, 5(21)
[4] ibid.
[5]  Cairney P & Oliver K , How Should Academics Engage in Policymaking to Achieve Impact?, Political Studies Review, 18 (2), pp. 228-244. Copyright © The Authors 2018. Reprinted by permission of SAGE Publications. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/1478929918807714
[6] https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/polopoly_fs/1.658541!/file/RecipeForImpact.pdf
[7] Langer, L., Tripney, J., Gough, D. (2016) The Science of Using Science: Researching the Use of Research Evidence in Decision-Making. London: EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, UCL Institute of Education, University College London.
[8] https://theconversation.com/what-does-research-say-about-how-to-effectively-communicate-about-science-70244
[9] Cairney, P., Kwiatkowski, R. How to communicate effectively with policymakers: combine insights from psychology and policy studies. Palgrave Commun 3, 37 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-017-0046-8
[10] https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/polopoly_fs/1.658541!/file/RecipeForImpact.pdf
[11] van der Bles AM, van der Linden S, Freeman ALJ, Mitchell J, Galvao AB, Zaval L, Spiegelhalter DJ. 2019 Communicating uncertainty about facts, numbers and science. R. Soc. open sci. 6: 181870. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsos.181870
[12] https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/polopoly_fs/1.658541!/file/RecipeForImpact.pdf
[13] Oliver, K., Innvar, S., Lorenc, T. et al. A systematic review of barriers to and facilitators of the use of evidence by policymakers. BMC Health Serv Res 14, 2 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1186/1472-6963-14-2
[14] Cairney, P., Kwiatkowski, R. How to communicate effectively with policymakers: combine insights from psychology and policy studies. Palgrave Commun 3, 37 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-017-0046-8


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