‘Introduction to working with policymakers’ session by Nick Bibby of Scottish Policy and Research Exchange

This online session, hosted by Queen Margaret University on 24 November, provided an overview of how to get research noticed by government and other policy institutions. The ‘research questions’ were

  • What are policymakers looking for from research? 
  • What questions should researchers address? 
  • When is the best time to engage? 
  • Who should you contact? 

The following is my lightly edited notes of the presentation by the presentation by Nick Bibby, Director of Scottish Policy and Research Exchange, and the following Q&A session. Hence any mistakes or poor language are due to me, not Nick. Images are screenshots. If I receive the slides, I will update the images so they are clearer.

Introduction/getting started

Challenges are about shaping research, rather than ‘how to write a policy brief’.

https://spre.scot/how-to-get-started gives exercises and advice, videos (Scottish Policy and Research Exchange)

Working with policy community. Policy-engagement is far more than sitting at horse-shoe table giving advice to MSPs. It goes from UK Parliament down to community level.

But do give evidence to parliamentary enquiries if you can – but this is demanding.

Questions to consider

  • Why would you want to do this?
  • What question are you answering? Thinking on this is critical.
  • Who do you need to speak to?
  • When is the best time to connect?
  • Where does your research focus?

Why would you want to do this?

There are two ‘sub-questions’:

  • What’s in it for me?
  • What’s in it for the world?

– it’s interesting – but hard

– makes world a better place

– good academic reasons, especially for social scientists (I think of action research)

– get academics new audiences, so you need to know your stuff. (Can you explain it in 200 words to a tabloid reader?)

– Evidence-informed policy is better

– academics bring new perspectives

What question are you answering?

Policy questions are not academic research questions – policy answers can be implemented.

It’s not academics’ jobs to develop new policy. Instead think about what government is doing.

Say if you’ve done a study, then want to get it into policy-sphere. Don’t do ‘my research says…’. Instead, look for live or forthcoming issues that the work can address.

To do this, keep an eye on the news (general and specialist) that’s relevant to your area. Talk to other practitioners, policy-fasting disciplines. And look at programme for government, manifestos, government and parliamentary enquiries, NGOs. That is get, ahead of the game.

Who do you treat to speak to?

Key point is there is far more than primary legislation and parliamentary enquiries: local authorities are starved for policy capacity cos they are skint, public bodies (e.g. agencies) that have specialist viewpoints. Also Audit Scotland does policy audits.

Bruce adds: there is ‘who runs government’ which should at least help find the appropriate directorate: https://www.gov.scot/about/who-runs-government/cabinet-and-ministers/

Bruce adds: For a full list of all public bodies (and the plethora of types of public bodies) in Scotland see https://www.gov.scot/publications/public-bodies-in-scotland-guide/   

There are two governments covering Scotland: the UK Government and the Scottish Government – look out for what is and isn’t devolved to the SG. For example, education is devolved, nuclear power isn’t. But any new nuclear power station would be subject to the SG planning authority (and current SG is likely to say ’no’).

Bruce adds: here is the Scottish Parliament’s page on devolved and reserved matters. (In this case, a reserved matter is one on which the Scottish Parliament cannot legislate.)

Bruce also adds: a parliament is a law-making body. a government is (basically) a subset of members of parliament who have won executive authority. This is usually because that subset is the largest party (or coalition of parties) in the parliament.

Race-relations officially not devolved but most action happens more locally.

That is, send your stuff to the right people.

SPRE mostly works with civil servants, not politicians. (The latter focus on immediate tasks, the formier on more long-term things.)

Find the relevant individuals to contact!!! Think about the tools they use (policy briefings and reports)

When is the best time to connect?

Policy moves fast, because it’s driven by events. (Think: we’ve forgotten about Brexit cos of COVID. In turn, Brexit caused us to forget the previous topic of concern.)

Bruce adds: I’ve not forgotten about Brexit!

Even if you are at preliminary stage, get in contact. Policy-makers aren’t so interested in individual papers.

Answer the phone if the policy-makers call, and tell them ‘this is what we know now’! (Policymakers work in small teams, so are under much pressure to deliver. For example, civil servants may be on call to deliver briefings for the following day’s First Minister’s Questions until very late in the evening, then again from very early in the morning.

Where does your research focus?

Policy takes place in real space. So if you want to influence SG, do things in/about Scotland. If your work is in Aberdeen, and you think it should be implemented in Dundee, show why it applies to Dundee.

Or if your dataset is about all of UK, Welsh government will want to know about Welsh subset.

So go and talk to the relevant council/local authority – they will be interested.

Make sure you understand local policy and political context. (Often UK civil servants don’t get Scotland, and vice versa.)  

Message, medium, audience

Once you have thought about question and audience, think about medium from who you want to connect with and how to connect with them.

Communication tools

– don’t over-complicate. Use things policymakers expect

– nothing is perfect – what does the audience have time for?

– start small – like a CV leads to an interview. Grab attention

Top tips

– what is person I want to connect with trying to achieve? Focus on that.

SPRE has weekly roundups: register at https://spre.scot/the-brokerage/


Is the ‘policy cycle’ mythical? If not, when in the cycle is best to engage?

It works better as metaphor than mechanism, because policy is messy. The ‘policy cycle’ imposes some rationality on policy process.

It would be nice if we did the cycle.

There is strategy in government, but groups that have better access can force things. Also there is reacting to crisis.

Connect now, but don’t miss relevant points in legislative process. So don’t use policy cycle as engagement tool.

In Scotland, is there a place that we can go to where we can register names of academics and subject area specialists so that policymakers/ analysts can get hold of them urgently when needed?

Problem is how to make the right thing granular yet accessible because there is jargon.

Basic answer is ‘no’.

SG will go to the big hubs/networks on any topic, so be in one of them. Unfortunately, policy-makers often think the big hubs are the only game in town. So make yourself obvious, well known

In my experience of policy-making, the only issue with timing is being too late.  But usually someone will be interested, just maybe not at that exact moment in time.  Sorry, not a question, but it’s a really useful thing to remember

True but depends on policy topic. Don’t wait for publication, cos policy goes much faster. Be able to package things in ways policy-makers can consume.

If topic is live now, connect now.

Does Napier providing a list of specialists / academics to support policy makers and journalists, when particular themes are in discussion?

Not yet – so maybe build one with an institutional badge (you will need willing colleagues!)

Or be THE Scottish Centre on … using language that will help with policy makers

NB policy analysts move role every few years, or more frequently


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