Getting involved in policy making – a researcher’s guide

I have no patience with supposedly ‘critical’ education researchers whose critical activity consists of writing academic papers and moaning in the common room, but who make no contribution to policy or practice. I do, though, sympathise with colleagues who would like to contribute to policy making, but don’t know where to begin.

So here is my own advice for someone starting out. Other people will have more experience than I do, or different experience, and will have different and probably better ideas. My own experience is mainly UK-based, with more limited involvement at European level (and a couple of brief activities for OECD), and this will colour my views.

But what colours my views more than anything is a belief that educational research matters. That’s why I do it – the REF, scholarly conferences, travel, book royalties (!), all the rest, are in the end just fluff in the navel. So – deep breath – here is my own unlucky list of thirteen.

  1. Policy makers are busy people, surrounded by other people who are clamouring for their attention. You can’t just write great papers for top journals and wait to be noticed. In my case, getting invitations to do policy work came about because I had spent years working with practitioner groups and providers. They passed my name on to other people who decided to invite me on to working parties and inquiries.
  2. Try writing an accessible summary of your research findings. You can self-publish the result electronically, as a PDF, or in hard copy, as a pamphlet or as an article in a professional journal. I’ve always found this a useful exercise, as it forces me to think hard about whether this piece of research really does matter as much as I thought it did, at least to anyone other than fellow specialists.
  3. Learn from more experienced colleagues. Your immediate colleagues might want to keep their contacts and skills to themselves, but others won’t be so possessive, and they speak and write about it freely. I really wish I’d read something like the LSE Impact Blog at an earlier stage – it would have helped me avoid quite a few mistakes.
  4. If someone senior asks you to stand in for them at a meeting, see it as a potential opportunity rather than a burden. Obviously, this depends on what the meeting is. But one of my early encounters with the world of local government happened when my head of department was too busy to attend a meeting in the council offices, and he couldn’t find a senior lecturer in time to ask them.
  5. Policy making is a complex business, and it takes place at different levels. I started out by being asked to do things with local government, trade unions, and voluntary organisations. Working with national ministries and quangos came along much later, and is much rarer. If you want to get involved in policy advice, then build relationships with people at these local levels.
  6. Your networks will change over time. In my case, people I used to socialise with over a beer or see around the town centre later became eminent leaders of important national agencies. Meanwhile, some senior civil servants retired, and with them went my connections to their department. Quangos come and go, and the chief executives of major organisations can be fired – though perhaps it is worse when, as in one colleague’s case, they get bound up in a major scandal and refuse to leave. So don’t just build new networks, but refresh them from time to time.
  7. Do research as though it matters. Bear in mind that policy makers tend to see the world in terms of their electorate’s concerns. In my case, most of my research is on adult learning and higher education. I don’t see my topic as an opportunity for linguistic inventiveness or complex theoretical exegesis: for me, adult learning is something that matters profoundly in people’s lives, from the moment that they leave school through to their life as elders. So I have no qualms about working with people who can improve the learning experiences of men and women who are trying to better their lot and that of their communities.
  8. Accept your limitations.Your research probably won’t lead to immediate changes, and unless you are part of a large collaborative team, your research will address one small but important aspect of a much broader policy issue. The good news is that if you do get involved in policy dialogue, you will probably be seen as the best person to find and summarise other people’s research.
  9. Accept that policy makers are different from us. Before making decisions, they look at lots of different types of evidence – such as opinion polls and election results, their experience of trying to handle this topic in the past, how the budget process works, their familiarty with media coverage, what they think their own boss might say about it – along with the findings of our research.
  10. You get more respect from them if you respect their expertise in turn, or at any rate that has been my experience. Most public administrators and many elected politicians are bright, highly educated, and experienced people, and in general I’ve found that they also have principles. Respecting this does not mean that you share all their values and priorities, but it is a lot better than assuming that they are foolish or corrupt.
  11. At the same time, though, you do have to develop a thick skin. We all have our own war stories. I got pasted in public by an elected politician who attacked my use of the term ‘manual workers’. She found the word ‘manual’ sexist. When I said that it derived from the Latin word for ‘hand’ and had nothing to do with ‘man’, she added that I was ‘pompous and elitist’ as well. I sulked, until a wiser and older colleague gently told me to get over myself. But this experience, if not unique, isn’t typical.
  12. So I had to learn how to communicate. Often, policy makers come from a very similar education and socio-cultural milieu to us. Others don’t. Coming from the solid middle of the middle class, I needed to develop skills for engaging with the powerful and privileged, and with those who represent the interests of the least privileged and most stigmatised communities. But both can help shape other people’s lives, and we need to influence them.
  13. Learn more about the world of policy. Forget Yes, Minister or The Thick of It. If you’re at all like me, you won’t have much direct experience of making and delivering policy. I did work briefly on a secondment for Sheffield City Council, as a research officer, but otherwise I have little direct insight into the lifeworld of the politician or civil servant or leader of a large NGO. I’ve had to read and listen; some of Geoff Mulgan’s reflections on his time in Whitehall proved helpful in giving me some insights into this well-known but little understood world (

A paper on one of my own encounters with policy making is available at:


2 thoughts on “Getting involved in policy making – a researcher’s guide

  1. all good stuff John. In my experience your point 2 is crucial – and it should be about findings, not a summary of the whole research, methodology and all. In my view, this would actually help researchers communicate better amongst themselves too….

  2. A most useful and interesting contribution, to which I offer 4 more points.

    1 Start with policy makers’ interests, which is often a problem to be solved. Work from their problem to the proposed solution in a few well signposted steps.

    2 Sometimes one’s proposal is adopted quickly, in which case be prepared to respond very quickly to requests for advice on implementation. But mostly influencing policy is a slow burn, so be prepared to wait for years before your ideas are taken up.

    3 Assume that your proposal will be adopted only partly, implemented differently to the way you envisage, and that some will distort it. Design your proposal to have a beneficial effect despite these compromises. If that doesn’t seem possible reflect carefully on whether the possible benefits of a good implementation outweigh the risk of a bad distortion.

    4 Policy advice and implementation is time consuming. Be prepared to invest effort as well as time in keeping on top of and contributing to relevant policy discussions.

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