Thursday, 26 March 2015

Engaging with Politicians & Policymakers

Academics and politicians don't, traditionally, mix. The academics often see the politicians as Machiavellian mischief makers; politicians see academics as detached boffins. There's mutual distrust.

Last week's Grants Factory tried to remedy that. The Parliamentary Outreach Service (POS) showed that, not only were politicians not antagonistic to academics, but they actually valued and benefited from their research. Prof Jagjit Chadha (Economics) also spoke about the potential benefit for academics, in engaging with the parliamentary system, of understanding how decisions are made, and of playing a part in helping those decisions to be better informed.

He felt that it could be an immensely rewarding experience, both from just being part of the “process”, but also from having a real route to impact for your work. He did, however, warn of a couple of pitfalls that he had observed. Firstly, you need to beware of “capture” by politicians and policy makers, who will try to influence your input and research. Secondly, you may be exposed to potentially hostile media interest. This is outside the experience of most academics, and he advised that you get good media management support.

MPs are, by their very nature, generalists. They're paid to have shallow opinions on a broad range of issues. To deepen these opinions somewhat, they rely for their information on three sources:
  • The Commons Library Research Service. This is for MPs, and is open to all parties. There are 60 subject specialists. It provides: 
    • 250 confidential briefings for MPs each month;
    • 100+ 'standard notes' online each year;
    • Regular 'current awareness' emails to over 100 subscribers;
    • Personal briefings; 
    • Library research papers.
  • The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST). Established in 1989, POST was created to provide more depth on complex issues that legislators were increasingly having to deal with. It produces 20-30 'POSTnotes' per year, many of which come via the Research Councils. These are generally compiled after having talked to around 15 experts, and recent editions have focussed on issues such as 'mental health and the workplace', 'measuring wellbeing', and 'advanced manufacturing.' It organises events, talks and outreach sessions. They are increasingly interested in input from the Social Science disciplines.
  • The Select Committees. These are at the heart of Parliament's effort to get information. There is one for each Government Department, and they are tasked with examining the 'administration, expenditure and policy' of that Department. There are also cross-cutting subject-based committees.
In addition, there are a range of interested parties that try and influence the views of MPs, from lobbyists and all-party groups, to constituents and the party 'machine'. 

Getting information, then, is not a problem; sorting the wheat from the chaff is. For the three substantive, objective sources of information (libraries, POST, select committees) to function, they rely on getting useful, incisive and informed advice. This often comes from academics. Their knowledge and understanding is invaluable and should help to create better laws. 

It was suggested that there were a number of ways that they could do so: 
  • Submitting evidence: keep an eye on the programme of select committees, or the issues that are currently dominating the headlines. Put yourself (or your views) forward as evidence, either in written form, or offering yourself up to provide oral evidence. Your evidence will stand a better chance of being heard if it takes a different or unusual perspective on the subject area. You do not have to be a senior researcher to give evidence – in the recent review of the BBC, the views of a postgraduate student were included in the final report.
  • Specialist adviser: if you work in an area that is particularly pertinent to a specific enquiry, volunteer to be a 'specialist adviser', who will be more formally asked to comment.
  • Contact staff: alternatively, you can approach Committee Clerks informally to discuss the work of the committees, and see where you can best inform the process.
  • Work placement: finally, there may be potential to spend a week or more getting to understand how the process works through a work placement.

If you want to find out more, or who best to approach within Parliament, drop me a line. 

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