How research can enhance policymaking: improving the interface between academia and government

Brian Head

Breaking down the barriers to collaboration between researchers and policy practitioners takes relationships of trust, innovative knowledge-brokering institutions and better mutual understanding.

16 August 2023

There is nothing so important for the quality of policymaking as enhancing policy-relevant knowledge – thereby securing one of the key pillars for better policy outcomes. Debates about how to establish closer links between knowledge and policy have been canvassed for many decades. The rough-and-tumble of everyday politics remains uninspiring – we constantly see opinion-leaders and decision-makers ignoring the knowledge base or looking for snippets to fit their pre-determined narrative (cherry-picking).

We still don’t know a lot about how “good research” actually finds its way into analyses of policy options. Policy-relevant research is produced in many locations, both within and beyond the government sector – by government agencies, by external research institutes, by industry and community organisations, and by think tanks. But there are few studies about what types of research are valued and trusted by decision-makers. And there are few studies about how policy-relevant research is actually accessed and utilised.

Expert knowledge and advice need to be valued and nurtured in this era of populist slogans – where experts are not respected, where research findings are waved aside, and where evidence is used selectively to reinforce pre-existing prejudices. Academics who support open and reasoned debate can become disheartened. What should they do? Join in the loud shouting? Retreat to the lab and the library? Fight or flight?

Closing this “gap” between policymakers and academic research is not a simple task. Broadly speaking, there are four closely connected reasons for the persistence of large communication gaps between the sectors.

Firstly, the professional cultures in academia and government are different, in relation to policy-relevant knowledge. Those scholars who undertake applied policy research tend to focus on the scientific quality of the evidence, whereas governmental practitioners generally have a more pragmatic focus on useful information to demonstrate results for project tasks and performance accountabilities.

Secondly, the two groups have different timeframes. Scholars prefer to have lengthy (often multi-year) research projects, whereas public servants and ministerial staff are concerned with quick responses to current issues.

Thirdly, the incentives and reward systems are different, with scholars aiming to accumulate publications in “good” journals, whereas public officials are more concerned with achieving milestones and managing emerging risks and stakeholder concerns.

Finally, there are few opportunities for regular interaction and knowledge exchange between the very busy people in each sector.

Academic research, even on core policy topics, is often ignored rather than utilised productively in the policy process. Senior public servants have often criticised academic research for being slow (not timely), poorly targeted and poorly communicated. It is believed that most academics make little effort to understand the needs and the institutional context of public policy practitioners. Government officials have multiple sources of advice, both internal and external. They can “shop” in the policy marketplace. Industry organisations, consultants and think-tanks are often seen as useful external sources of policy analysis and advice, partly because they closely monitor the concerns of government officials and partly because they can deliver advice quickly.

For all these reasons, recent thinking about how to improve trust and collaboration between the academic and governmental sectors has tended to focus on the importance of dialogue, brokering, relationship-building and undertaking joint activities to develop shared objectives. Several organisational shifts have been underway.

One is the “research impact” agenda, whereby academic researchers are expected to demonstrate they are generating benefits for non-academic partners (including government agencies). Another is the strong growth of intermediary and brokering bodies, networks and clearing-houses – dedicated to sharing knowledge and creating forums for thinking about problems and solutions (an example in the children and youth space is ARACY). A further useful innovation is the development and publication of forward research agendas or priorities by some government agencies (such as the NSW Department of Education). This not only assists the internal champions of research and evaluation within government, but also helps those external researchers who need better guidance about where to target their research efforts.

University researchers interested in undertaking policy-relevant analysis can explore several ways to hone their understanding of the concerns of public sector officials. These practitioners are found in diverse roles, whether in policy units, ministerial offices, legislatures, regulatory bodies or service delivery agencies. Getting to know non-academic practitioners (e.g., in government, the not-for-profit sector, communications or consultancy) takes time and effort for researchers. Attendance at forums and professional events where practitioners regularly gather can be enlightening for researchers. Organising workshops on “hot topics” can provide exciting opportunities to invite non-academics to participate on mixed panels.

Academic researchers also need to expand their repertoire of writing styles and communication methods. For example, the academics who are well known in policy and media circles typically write in a variety of modes or channels (e.g., reports, articles, blogs), crafted for different audiences. They realise that the mere dissemination of research reports does not change the policy landscape. Instead, they seek to communicate key policy implications rather than research summaries. They seek “exchange” relationships with practitioners rather than one-way distribution of information. Several formats are useful – policy briefs, blogs or opinion pieces, “fact-checking” analyses of policy claims, submissions to public inquiries, and undertaking contract research in program evaluation.

Researchers who want to be influential can seldom succeed as individuals. Teams and networks have more impact. Researchers who undertake significant “relational” efforts are more likely to report positive influence. But these impacts tend to occur over time rather than through an immediate shift in government choices.

Network organisations and knowledge-brokering organisations are especially important. For example, user-friendly “clearing-house” websites have been developed, which host policy-relevant reports, analytical commentaries, and research synthesis overviews written specifically for multiple audiences (two great examples are Analysis & Policy Observatory and the Australian Institute of Family Studies). Other types of intermediary organisations focus on the provision of connective opportunities, facilitating discussion of perspectives between the sectors. Knowledge-brokering is a key function for many of these network organisations. This distinguishes them from think-tanks, which are usually more concerned with disseminating evidence-informed arguments and policy advice advocating policy reforms.

The ecosystem of evidence-informed policymaking is broad and diverse. There are many “hot-spots” where productive relationships have developed between the sectors over many years. Some examples of long-term research linkages include health treatments, safety and injury prevention programs, urban and housing research, and early childhood education. These more intensive areas of collaboration reflect a combination of factors: such as a well-defined policy problem, appreciation of the benefits of working together, mutual respect between research-friendly government officials and policy-savvy researchers, and sufficient funding to undertake co-designed work. There are many areas of policy reform and innovation that would benefit from much closer engagement between the sectors. And more broadly, more could be done in this work to incorporate methods for citizen engagement – for instance, feedback on current service deficiencies, citizen involvement in policy and planning reviews, and crowd-sourcing of ideas for tackling new challenges.

The perceived value of research can be sharpened through better engagement and communication. But in this age of mistrust and “post-truth” politics, we need researchers to become “trusted advisers” in order to strengthen the robustness of evidence-informed policymaking. To deserve this standing, researchers need to understand the policy landscape and respect the confidentiality of policymaking processes. Researchers need to understand the priorities, concerns and pressures experienced by practitioners. They can only learn these lessons by stronger engagement with policy practitioners and by participation in networks that promote enhanced understanding across the sectors. There are many different pathways towards improving perceived value, relevance and impact. But in every case, relational networks and intermediary bodies are vital for improving the interface between research and policymaking.

Brian Head is Professor of Public Policy in the School of Political Science & the Centre for Policy Futures at the University of Queensland. He joined the University of Queensland in mid-2007 after holding senior roles in government, universities, and the non-government sector. He is the author or editor of several books and numerous articles on evidence-based policy, complex or “wicked” problems, program evaluation, collaboration and consultation, public sector integrity, and public sector leadership.

Image credit: Metamorworks/Getty Images


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