Professor Mark Reed advises on how to engage with policy

Working with third sector, national and international policy: a case study of N8 peatland research


In this blog I want to help researchers who want to generate impact with third sector organisations and national and international policy makers, to take  he first steps in ways that will work effectively and be time-efficient. I’ll do this by drawing on my research on science-policy dialogue and impact to  dentify key steps and tools, and illustrate these with a case study of my research with N8 colleagues on peatbogs, in particular the Valuing Nature  programme Peatland Tipping Points project.

Step One: Find an evidence gap or policy challenge that people care about.

The biggest mistake most people make when trying to generate impact, is to do the research and then hope someone finds it useful. The next mistake people make is to try and find an evidence gap or policy challenge themselves,  and then discover that they got it wrong and nobody actually cares about the issues they identified.

Instead, you need to find a “policy window” – a window of opportunity for your research to help policy. If you can map your research onto a live policy  process or challenge that Government are working on, you’re much more likely to get impact. Even if the Government is ideologically opposed to your work, find the window of opportunity by working with opposition parties or third sector organisations who want to hold Government to account.

How do you do this? A stakeholder analysis will help you identify and prioritise those who are most interested, influential and impacted. Your next step is to go and speak to these people, others like them, or people who work with them, to find out the nature of the opportunities that might be out there, and start building relationships. This saves you time because you only reach out to the most relevant people and when you do, you tailor your communication to their interests and so you get a great initial response rather than having to chase endlessly.

Step Two: Focus on benefits and work out how to realise them.

Many researchers focus so much on the mechanics of the policy process so much that they forget the ultimate goal – to help people by making better policy. Ultimately, if all you have to show for your work is a policy brief, a consultation response and some high-level meetings, all you have is the pathway. If there is no benefit yet for anyone, then there is no impact yet, and you need to keep pursuing your pathway till you get impact.

I do this is with an impact plan, which clearly identifies the policy changes you seek, whether in a charity or other organisation, or at the level of national or international policy. A good impact plan has these benefits articulated as clear goals, with some longer-term more ambitious ones as well as the quick wins. You need a plan to reach each goal, including:

 Who you will work with, both directly and indirectly
 Which parts of your research you will draw on (you want this to be RESEARCH impact after all)
 Which activities you will use, bearing in mind that you may need multiple activities as part of the long-term pathway you will follow
 Indicators to tell you if your pathway is working and your’re getting impacts And finally consider the risks, how you’ll mitigate them and who will do what and when

This saves you time because you can now focus on one or two key policy goals, that you think could credibly actually make a difference, rather than just responding to every consultation that comes your way, and taking a scattergun approach which ultimately leaves you with evidence of pathway but no evidence of impact.

Step Three: Build long-term, trusting, two-way relationships.

Once you have your plan, you need to shift your focus from the tools and activities back to the people, if this is going to work. Identify people in the organisations you identified in your stakeholder analysis (step 1). I like to start from the bottom up, identifying people who I can help, offering help as selflessly as possible to build trust, and better understand the organisation I’m trying to serve.

You can become a trusted advisor, just by being credible as a researcher and proving that you can deliver what they need when they need it in a way that  they can understand and use. Then you get higher level opportunities over time and can identify windows of policy opportunity much more quickly and effectively from this internal standpoint. I do this by writing tailored emails to people I think I can help, followed up where possible with exploratory meetings, to identify more things I can help with, and then delivering on my promises.

Case study

Step One: Find an evidence gap or policy challenge that people care about

Identify gaps and challenges with policy makers and those who affected by the policies: In the early days of my peatland research, we weren’t sure what policy issues we should be focussing on, so we started with a stakeholder analysis. We did this via a workshop with two stakeholders advising, followed by a handful of meetings with key people that emerged from the workshop, asking them what they thought were the key issues we should be focussing on.

Keep asking for feedback and adapt your focus accordingly: Based on this information, I worked out which team in Defra I needed to work with, and set about getting in touch with them. It took me to make a plan and travel to London before I eventually got a half hour meeting with someone from that team, and they confirmed the nature of the policy window and what they would ideally like from our research. We then adapted the research to make
sure that we got these answers in addition to the other answers we needed to answer for our research.

Identify and work with influencers who share your goals and values: Our stakeholder analysis also identified a charity, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as a potentially influential organisation working on similar issues, so I reached out to them to see how we might be able to help them, and ultimately ended up becoming their research lead. But it was the same process, of finding tasks that needed to be done and consistently delivering on small things, and building trust over years.

Step Two: Focus on benefits and work out how to realise them

Adapt your focus to the interests of different groups to maximise benefits: The policy challenges we started out with have remained ever since, but the extent to which different Governments have cared about them has differed, and so we’ve revisited this with successive Governments to see if there are other linked priorities that are more important to them that we can progress alongside our core goal of restoring and sustainably managing peat bogs. Our focus has shifted from focusing on biodiversity to climate change, and from putting money in farmers pockets to reducing the burden of nature conservation on the state, but all the while moving us closer to the goal of restored and sustainably managed peat bogs.

See your impact goals through the eyes of those you seek to help: The key thing is to take the step of empathy that discovers what the current minister or Government sees as most important, and if (only if) it is possible to adapt to these without compromising the research or my values, then I adapt to deliver something that would be perceived as benefit to them. This shows how context-dependent and subjective impact is – you might think the climate
benefit of restoring peat bogs is an unambiguous benefit to an Environment Minister, but if they happen to be a climate denier, then they may look very differently at your work.

Identify multiple impact goals and pathways so you can adapt when things go wrong: So we had goals and pathways, but we had multiple goals and pathways, and as a result were able to adapt over the years, to deliver benefits, rather than just having evidence of policy- briefs and consultation responses that went nowhere (though we did our fair share of this in a targeted way).

Step Three: Build long-term, trusting, two-way relationships
More recently, opportunities have arisen to work with the United Nations. Although my international engagement has got my research into various reports linked to the three Rio conventions and their science-policy interfaces, it is difficult to trace concrete policy benefits from this work. So when I learned about a new UN initative on peatlands, I made it my business to find out who was in charge, so I could find out how my colleagues and I might be able to help.

Do your research: My route in was via IUCN, who attended some of the initial meetings and became an official partner of the initiative. Based on their intelligence and the trust they established with other partners, I was able to work out who the key people were, and approach them, explaining the parts of my research that I thought might be of mostrelevance to their work.

Draw on trust proxies to open doors and then build your own trust: To build trust, I emphasised my role as research lead for IUCN UK Peatland programme and my University role, including a key paper I attached to my email.

Adapt to opportunities as they arise: This led to an invitation to speak at a side event at the recent UN climate conference in Poland, where I was able to find out more about the initiative and pitch what we could offer more intelligently. This then led to an opportunity to run a process that, if successful may feature in their planned Global Peatland Assessment, and change how researchers around the world generate and report peatland data, so it can
be synthesised to provide stronger evidence for national and international policy.

I hope that this has given you a flavour of what you can do to work with third sector organisations to inform policy. I’ve shown you what I did as an early career researcher (I was still a PhD student when I was knocking on doors in Defra). You don’t need to have a lot of confidence or experience. The key is being systematic and empathic. If you understand the key things that are likely to work, even with limited time, you can make a difference in the
policy world.