How Academics Can Work Effectively with Policymakers in Complex Decision-Making Landscapes

How Academics Can Work Effectively with Policymakers in Complex Decision-Making Landscapes

On May 2, 2023, panellists* gathered at the Welsh Centre for Public Policy (WCPP) to discuss the challenges involved in providing outputs rooted in rigorous, independent evidence to decisionmakers who are pursuing a political agenda.

Sarah O’Meara

At the heart of the discussion was an acknowledgment that academics who are keen to contribute to ongoing policy debate must find a way into key conversation spaces, build strong working relationships and accept the inherent messiness of active collaborations with those working in fast-moving environments with evolving priorities.

Here are some key takeaways from the event, which you can find recorded here, incorporating points from all five panellists.

Relationship Building

One of the best ways to underline the importance of using evidence is not by making an argument for the value of research evidence, but instead by showing and explaining the work itself.

In order to do this, you need to develop good relationships with individuals so that you can put the work in context, and highlight its relevance. You can never assume that the implications speak for themselves.

There are no shortcuts to this work, and very few moments where evidence makes a quick or immediate change. Instead, it all starts with how you build and manage the relationships and establish trust.

Identify Your Policymaker Audience and Their Needs

To effectively communicate with different groups, it’s important to consider their unique characteristics and needs. One panellist highlighted that decision-making audiences can be broadly categorised into three groups.

The first audience is politicians, who operate in a world driven by elections, opinion polls, and party dynamics. They have limited bandwidth and are primarily concerned with evidence that is immediately useful for policy decisions. Therefore, lengthy reports with buried conclusions are useless for this group.

The second audience is the bureaucracy, which includes government entities such as local authorities and devolved governments. They operate on longer timescales and are focused on programs, laws, and implementation. This group may be more receptive to certain types of evidence if it fits within their orderly, rational framework.

The third audience is made up of various professions, such as teachers, police officers, and healthcare workers. These individuals have a strong ethos of autonomy and self-control and may be sceptical of politicians and bureaucrats. Evidence-based recommendations aimed at this group should be tailored to their specific needs and values.

Overall, effective communication requires understanding the unique characteristics and needs of different audiences and tailoring messages accordingly.

Notice Inherent Tensions of Research Evidence and Policymaking

One panellist noted that while there is a risk of researchers or research evidence being captured by policymakers, equally, there is a risk that policy priorities can be captured by the research agenda.

There is a need to fundamentally recognise that politicians set policy priorities because they’re democratically elected, but researchers set research agendas because they are best placed to do so. It’s the system we have and embedded in the research funding structure.

What Methods are Needed to Work Within this Complicated Space?

Co-production among different actors within a policy system has become increasingly crucial, in order to produce work that has a receptive audience and also meets policy demand. One panellist highlighted that their work is no longer just produced by their organisation in collaboration with experts, but increasingly by groups of experts.

There’s also an open question about the extent to which academics can or should be trying to step into this space or whether you need brokering organisations, such as IPPO, to act as a bridge.

Increasingly, there are incentives for academics to engage with policymakers with their research, however, there have not been equivalent incentives for those in government, and that has created a systemic imbalance.

Future-looking Research is Needed to Tackle Huge Social Challenges

One of our panellists expressed a concern about relying solely on evidence, data, and observation from the present and past to conduct research. In fast-changing fields, such as regulating AI or envisioning a net-zero economy, there may be no evidence, but huge policy need for long-term, imaginative thinking.

These are skills that need to be cultivated by combining deep knowledge of a field, with creative imagination, drawing on methods from other fields such as the arts, design and literature.


  • Chair: Dan Bristow, Director of Policy & Practice at the WCPP
  • Professor Sir Geoff Mulgan, Professor of Collective Intelligence, Social Innovation and Public Policy at University College London, and Thematic Director of IPPO
  • Sarah Chaytor, Director of Strategy & Policy, UCL Co-Chair, Universities Policy Engagement Network (UPEN); Co-I at Capabilities in Academic-Policy Engagement (CAPE); Strategic Engagement Director, IPPO
  • Steve Martin, Director of the WCPP
  • Jonathan Breckon, a Research Fellow working with IPPO, CAPE and POST