Time to re-think the unthinkable: how can we get our research messages discussed by politicians?

Chris Brown

The party conference season is a useful barometer for those who champion the more widespread use of evidence within policy making. Among the announcements and denouncements, we start to get an understanding of the gamut of policy positions being developed by the main political parties and, importantly, by those who advise them. These are, to use the ancient Greek idea, the nascent policy “agoras” (pdf), or gathering places for policy.

They matter because they illustrate that whoever wins the election will have already devised their manifesto for government. This positioning of perspectives will also frame the nature of the evidence policy-makers will or won’t engage with once in office. Clearly the scope of any policy agora (the breadth of the arguments it contains) depends on the extent to which ministers wish to let their civil servants investigate potential solutions for particular policy problems. But if the trend set by the current education secretary continues, then the positioning both of evidence and of those who offer advice worth listening to, is something that will need to happen long before the electioneering for 2015 has even commenced.

The year ahead, as a result, represents the period when we can work with potential future governments to re-think the unthinkable: to champion new ideas at the expense of the current ones and to reposition the country’s journey over the course of the next electoral cycle. This of course takes time and effort, but it also requires an understanding of the appropriate strategies to employ.

Historically academics, in addition to their day to day business of writing journal articles, have been encouraged to ensure that their research outputs are both digestible and applicable: that what they write can not only be easily understood, but that it is also immediately ‘policy ready’. Often efforts to do so result in frustration. This is because while useful, these two qualities alone are unlikely to lead to a greater uptake of research by policy-makers: ideas may still sit outside of the policy-agora or policy-makers may simply fail to see any need to act on what is presented. Importantly, then, what is also required is substantial ground-work to enhance the “social robustness” of any idea – to promote its importance and the need to act as a result.

Efforts to enhance social robustness can be directed via the general media, social media or through cultivating links with special advisors and others who matter, but the ultimate endgame of this action is to advance ideas towards what Malcolm Gladwell describes as the “tipping point“: ensuring issues enter and dominate the mainstream and so must be addressed.

As well as relating to general ideas, however, we can also direct similar efforts towards promoting ourselves as experts, whose advice should be sought. Again, the result is the same, with those considered to be worth listening to finding it easier to catch the ears of policy makers than those who are not (as can be evidenced by those particularly skilled in this approach – Ben Goldacre for instance, provides a prime example of what can be achieved here). So let’s watch this week’s Labour Party conference with interest and see if we can assess not only which of our research might be in favour, but also whether there is scope for enhancing the social robustness of the messages that are not – and make sure they are ready in time for next year.

Dr. Chris Brown’s new book, Making Evidence Matter, published by IOE Press, is out now

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11 comments on “Time to re-think the unthinkable: how can we get our research messages discussed by politicians?
  1. Paul Temple says:

    Chris, your optimism that research findings can influence education policies in England today does you credit – but you havn’t got much evidence to back up your view, have you? As our former colleague Gordon Stobart said on Radio 4 the other day, Ministers aren’t interested in hearing why Finland does so well in the PISA tables because good local comprehensive schools and highly-trained teachers isn’t the right answer. Or to take the case of “free” schools, our colleague Suzanne Wiborg has shown that the supposed success of this approach in Sweden is largely illusory – but sorry, again, that’s the wrong answer. And as for faith schools – as Peter Newsam remarked years ago, there’s been a large-scale research project in Northern Ireland on the effects of religious segregation of children – and didn’t that work out well?

    • Chris Brown says:

      I think a great example of what I’m talking about stems from the Effective Pre-School, Primary and Secondary Education (EPPSE) project (which ran from 1996 to 2013). The project has been well quoted as a source of policy influence: for example, in the government publication Choice for parents, the best start for children: a ten year strategy for childcare (HMT, 2004: 65), it is stated that “the main source of analysis of the impact of pre-school provision on child development in the UK is the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education Project”. Furthermore, in providing the policy rationale for the benefits of early education, Choice for parents cites EPPSE numerous times as providing key evidence with regards a range of policy issues. In addition, EPPSE is also referred to in the 2003 document, Every Child Matters, the 2004 Children’s Act (particularly with regards to extended services) and also in the 2007 paper Policy Review of Children and Young People. Former Secretary of State for Education, Ruth Kelly, also noted in her first major education speech that:

      “The most important ongoing study is probably the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education [EPPE] study. This exciting new evidence means we can now say definitively… that high quality pre-school experiences have lasting effects and continue to make a real difference to how well children do and how they develop soundly throughout the early years of primary school.” (2005).

      The resulting policy expansion following the adoption of the EPPSE findings was significant. For example, Choice for parents suggests that, at the time of its writing: “525,000 additional childcare places have been created benefiting 1.1million children” (HMT, 2004: 22) and that “1,279 Neighbourhood Nurseries have been opened” (HMT, 2004: 26). In addition, Choice for parents notes that a £125 million Transformation Fund was set in place to improve the quality of, and training afforded to, the early years workforce.

      What is key, however, is the amount of pre-work EPPSE researchers undertook to enhance the credibility of the message prior to its adoption so that the ground was prepared for the message when it emerged. EPPSE researchers also suggested during interviews I held with with them, that being asked to manage such a high profile project indicated that they had become privileged by policy-makers, due to their acknowledged expertise in ‘early years’. This ensured that both they and their area of research were both highly favoured and privileged by policy-makers (both before the study commenced and for the length of its duration).

      • Paul Temple says:

        Chris, I’m not familiar with the policy area you give as an example, so would I be right in thinking that this was a field where the government either proposed no action, or action that was not what the research indicated, and then, when they saw the research, said “Blimey, we’re on completely the wrong track here, we’d better change our policy sharpish”. Is that roughly what happened?

        Paul

  2. Victor Burgess says:

    One can only agree with Mr Temple. The government in general and Mr Gove in particular seem only to have ideological views and teachers and school leaders are under their instrumental cosh. It is a cosh which prevents reflection and forbids risk taking and experiment.Sad indeed! But maybe things are changing; writers like Gladwell and Goldacre have made important contributions in general. Maybe your thinking, Chris, on how researchers can undertake the work required with regard to ‘the ground work’ and so the social robustness of the thinking will make a contribution in terms of education. Keep chipping away!

  3. CHRIS BROWN says:

    Hi Paul, the study was originally funded by the Department for Education and Skills to provide answers to policy questions about early childhood education and care: at the time of its commission, a primary challenge for policy was perceived to be the need to transform services available for 0-5 year old children so that they were provided in a more coherent and joined up way. That it was commissioned at all I think is testament in part to the preceding ground work undertaken by the ‘Early Years Forum’ (an association of academic researchers, professional bodies and other stakeholders looking to influence policy), who paved the way for the early years message.

    Another example that I have from direct personal experience is that of restorative justice. I was a senior policy advisor at the Ministry of Justice before and after the 2010 election which saw the incumbent government reject notions of restorative justice and the new one totally accept it. The underlying research both were exposed to was the same: findings from randomised control trials run by Shapland et al. (2007; 2008) which suggested that use of pre and post sentence restorative justice interventions can reduce the frequency of offenders re-offending by 27 per cent and offer savings of £9 for every £1 spent on delivery; but the Restorative Justice Council and the Association of Chief Police Officers were more successful at lobbying the Conservatives and Lib-Dems as to RJ’s effectiveness and its fit with their ideological aims than they were with New Labour. In a speech made before the election by Alan Duncan the (then) Conservative Shadow Minister for Prisons, for example he notes that restorative justice: “fits well into the broad philosophy of Conservatism because it devolves power down to local communities and local people. Conferences are likely to take place in or near the community where the offence was committed” (2010: 6). Duncan also quotes the 2008 research undertaken by Shapland et al. and notes that “at a time when Government money is non-existent, [restorative justice] is incredibly cheap – incredibly cheap, incredibly effective and incredibly simple. Quite simply, what more could one ask for?” (2010: 7). Correspondingly, a commitment to restorative justice was made in the (2010) manifesto of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government: The Coalition: our programme for government’ (published on 20th May 2010). Here it is stated that: “we will introduce effective measures to tackle anti-social behaviour and low-level crime, including forms of restorative justice…”.

    The message of both examples is pre-election is the time to get these ideas into the minds of potential new governments.

    • Paul Temple says:

      But Chris, your example of restorative justice makes my point exactly! The new government wanted to do it, and your research provided useful cover; but the same research had no effect on the previous government, which didn’t want to go in that direction. If research findings fit into a preconceived political agenda, then of course they’ll be presented as evidence to support a policy change; if not….

      Paul

      • Chris Brown says:

        But why did they want to do it? They didn’t have an idea regarding the concept of RJ alone in isloation: ideas are informed through interaction. For sure, people have leanings towards particular things, but we don’t always know what we want and if someone (a researcher say) presents an idea that makes sense to use, we may well adopt it.

  4. Caroline Kenny says:

    This is a really interesting piece and one which certainly provides food for thought as the earlier comments demonstrate. In my (very humble) opinion, I don’t think that what Chris and Paul are arguing is all that different. Chris in the blog you talk about finding a ‘tipping point’ at which stage “issues enter and dominate the mainstream and so must be addressed”. This notion of a ‘tipping point’ seems to suggest that it is a case of saturation; if researchers keep banging on about an issue, have robust research to back it up and follow some of the techniques you outline, it will get on the agenda. I see it as slightly different and perhaps more in line with Paul’s view. Rather than understanding this as a ‘tipping point’, I see it in terms of ‘window of opportunities’ (in the John Kingdon model) where a piece of research is more or less likely to be picked up by politicians according to how well it fits with the prevailing ideas, ideologies or viewpoints of those in power. That is not to say that only research which agrees with these existing ideas will only be used because of course, we know that dramatic changes in policy direction can happen (for example in the case of macroeconomic policymaking in Britain between 1970 and 1989), However, in such cases it is rarely the research by itself that led to change. The individuals and organisations ‘delivering the message’ and/or advocating for these changes are just as, if not more so, important. Here, I would disagree slightly with your point Chris about academics promoting ourselves as experts. While I can certainly see the value of this, in terms of informing the political agenda it may be more fruitful to work with existing organisations who already have profile and good links to decision-makers (such as think tanks) rather than seek to try to influence the agenda themselves. To return to the example of the IOE EPPE study; yes this is an excellent example of research informing policy but it is also demonstrates the importance of timing and context to the political reception of ideas. EPPE builds upon a large body of historical research in this area that demonstrated the importance of early years (much of it from the US), which begs the question why was EPPE taken up in the way that it was while others failed. To answer that we need to look beyond the research (and how it was presented and by whom) and look at all of the other wider contextual and contributing factors.

    • Chris Brown says:

      Perhaps we also need to understand the extent to which policy-makers views are deep seated and which are more ameanable to change. If we consider the number of u-turns this government has made already then surely these must relate to policy areas that are ‘cared about’ less than others. I still firmly believe that many ideas can be shifted over time either by researchers alone or by researchers workingin in tandem with some of the brokering agents you describe above.

  5. Mariam Omran says:

    It is vital for researchers who aspire to inform policy to strategize through their communication and interaction methods as a form of increasing the likelihood of disseminating their knowledge for policy. While the likelihood in certain cases might be too low, there is a possible intangible influence that research data is able to create.

    Though a major obstacle is presented here when it comes to being able to theorize or decide if a certain policy or government decision was a result of a certain research. However, more and more policy makers tend to go with “what works” when making policy decisions. Most of the times, the “what works” is a result of research data, or data that politicians favor.

    In a recent study I undertook exploring three local authorities processes of policy making, in particular their use of research, policy makers seem to do in fact engage with research. However, the interesting finding was that while they do engage with research in informing their policies, there are scenarios that were presented as to the level of this engagement and its proximity to actually influencing policy. Of course, the political agenda factor was a major influence of how much research did politicians favor to use.

    As researchers, it is ideal if any of our data or research do in fact influence policy. With my experience currently in a much different politically structured governed country, I can honestly say that there are scenarios where research and researchers directly influence the policies in an extend that may be unbelievable in other countries, which that means better policy or not, is yet to know. More importantly, the fact that decisions are being taken because of solid data is more comforting than random agendas.

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