By Anthony Boxshall
What is the less visible ‘stuff’ that helps (or hinders) the uptake of research findings into government policy?
As a researcher it can be frustrating to have a great idea, connected to a seemingly important need, and even good networks, and yet still not be able to help your research have impact in the daily life of the relevant public sector decision-makers.
From more than 20 years of being involved in and with the senior decision-making levels of public sector environment agencies and running a business all about increasing the impact of science into public sector decision-making, I offer three insights that you should look for to see if the time and place are right for the uptake of your research. If these three elements exist, your research stands a good chance for uptake.
1. Look for the true priorities
As Mahatma Gandhi is claimed to have said “action expresses priorities”. Whether Gandhi really said this or not, it neatly sums up the reality of investment and priorities in the public sector. Despite the clearest annual and strategic plans, the day to day reality of the public sector is that priorities, rightly, shift. They shift based on new knowledge, new or different investment requirements, crises and, appropriately, according to the current politics. I say “appropriately” as I happen to believe in the sometimes-quaint notion that as we vote in our politicians, democracy means they have a say in priorities.
Knowing the above can help you. The best advice is not to look at what is online, or publicly stated to be the current priorities. Rather look at what the people in the public sector organisation are doing. What are they working on? What are they not working on? Where is the energy and effort going? Action expresses priorities. If your idea is not a current priority, or something that looks to be emerging as a priority, now is simply not the time to bring it forward.
2. Find the right people
During my time as a public servant, very smart and innovative people used to come to my office with excellent ideas that were not in my area, or in some cases not even my organisation. I tried as hard as I could to connect them to the right decision makers, but often it was not easy.
There is an onus on researchers to do some leg-work and find the right people. The right person may be defined simply as being in the right area. However, in public sector agencies the right people are also defined as those who are internally well-networked, internally well respected, innovative and in the right decision-making layer or location that fits with your research. It does mean having relationships across (and up and down) organisations so that you can build a strong link to a number of “right” people.
The wonderful secondary outcome of finding the right people, and listening to them, is that you will learn things about your research and the impact it can have that you did not conceive. And the right people will help make that impact happen.
3. Culture eats strategy for breakfast
This famous quotation by Peter Drucker was often cited by my Chair when I worked at the Victorian Environment Protection Authority. She helped me understand that while you can have the best possible strategy and vision for an organisation, it will not achieve all that it can unless the culture is right. Organisational culture is everything. It is the lifeblood of what motivates us at work, what helps us get out of bed every day, and what enables us to unlock our discretionary capacity in the workplace, which leads us to work more than what is required, and with increased creativity. When it is poor or flawed it leads to appalling decision-making by people able to hide behind the poor organisational culture.
So, what does culture have to do with getting impact out of your research? I have seen cultures across federal and state public sector agencies that are not conducive for getting uptake of new ideas, innovations or research. Often these cultures are deeply risk averse, passively aggressive, competitive or quite defensive. The cultures may be strongly reliant on following the rule books for the sake of it, rather than to achieve an outcome. You will feel it almost immediately when you try to engage with such a culture. Unfortunately for you, and your great research finding or idea, these cultures do not see the benefit of uptake of your research findings, nor do they wish to invest in you or your ideas without first going through such a tortured process that any sane cost-benefit analysis would stop you on day one.
On the upside, look for the public sector cultures focused on achieving something, those who use a strong culture of constructive feedback and accountability while actively supporting their staff to be and do better. These cultures exist and will openly work with you to get what impact can be had from your research. Don’t be put off. They are strong and self-confident cultures and the people there will not shrink from telling you frankly if they do not see a place for your idea. Importantly for you, you will know that the people living in these cultures will have worked hard and constructively to come to that decision.
When you find that your research is not getting picked up in the public sector, do look at the traditional elements of funding cycles, alignment and relevance, but also look for the three elements described above that are often less visible. Look around and check if you fit to a genuine priority, have found the right people and, most of all, if the culture of the organisation is open to embedding new research findings. In fact, save yourself some time, look for these three elements first and if you don’t find them, it tells you that that is not the place, and this is not the time, for your research to have an impact. However, do continue looking as there are excellent people in great public sector organisations crying out for good research that can influence their policy, regulatory and/or operational activities.
Do you have any experiences to share based on the elements described above? These lessons are drawn from experience in Australia, how well do they resonate with those of you living elsewhere?
Biography: Anthony Boxshall is the Founder and Principal of Science into Action, a science impact practice focusing on growing public value by getting more out of science and research. He is an experienced executive and board level scientific leader, and a qualified board director. He is a marine ecologist by trade, and a current Melbourne Enterprise Fellow – Integrative Environmental Research, at the University of Melbourne. His growing research areas include environmental impacts, coastal adaptation to climate change, citizen science and integrating research into practice.
9 thoughts on “Research impact in government – three crucial elements you will need for success”
So practical and sound advice! The need to be dynamic and flexible and listen and observe carefully is increasing: it is also an acid test to how relevant what you are trying to bring into the table is, sometimes it´s abouth shifting the angle or being able to wait until the time has come…
Thanks so much Vanessa. I think you are spot on with the key words “flexible” and “listening”. More and more I advise researchers to go and actively listen to the problems of public sector organisations. If there is alignment, look for the other less obvious signs that might make the collaboration a success. And move on if they don’t align to your research areas, or the other signs are not there. As you say it is the acid test in public policy uptake – if what you can solve is relevant, you will have a pathway to impact.
Thanks also for the cross-post to Politics and Ideas!
A crucial dimension for researchers is also to be anticipatory. ‘Listening ahead’ is about using the researcher skills to be ahead on problems that are likely to emerge. In that way the research can be more thorough than the rapid response demanded by policy makers. We found this in a number of cases when we looked at the influence of IDRC-supported research on public policy (see ‘Knowledge to Policy: Making the most of development research’, Sage & IDRC 2009). Agreed, it can be challenging to find funding for issues that are not yet on the table, but it does make a difference to have the time to do the research properly so a rapid response can be put forward when the time is right.
Agree Fred – there is nothing worse than only having immediate policy needs driving research agendas. I think researchers have a strong role in helping “lift up the eyes” of the policy teams to emerging challenges with long enough time frames to get meaningful research done. Often listening to needs that are on the table actively enough opens up the conversation for the less visible needs that a policy-maker can not yet fully see but a researcher’s expertise can make visible. In my experience, unless already identified gaps, those less obvious ones take time to build a case for investment. And that comes down to the relationships, which adds to your comment further up the string with examples from development research uptake.
An excellent and insightful ‘how to’ guide
This is just an immediate thought, but perhaps the ‘true priorities’ will be visible where organisations have formed collaborative initiatives to address pressing and urgent problems that single organisations have not been able to solve. Once these initiatives have bee found, perhaps the next thing to do is identify the organisational cultures involved and approach those that will be most helpful. It would also be helpful, I think, to identify the mix of cultures involved in a collaboration, as this can be an indicator of success or otherwise.
An excellent insight Charles. Like you, I suspect that if an organisation has built a collaboration to address a topic, then it is a true priority. Focus goes where energy flows – in this case the energy is resourcing for collaborative partners. A great measure of success.
I also really like your thoughts about drawing on the best elements of diverse cultures from within a collaborative venture.
Thanks Fred. I could not agree more. If I went to 4, structures/systems/processes for uptake would be it. I often find that it is these (dare I say “boring”) elements that are forgotten in the energy and focus of creating great research. Slightly counter-intuitively, good innovation and creativity needs a very normalized logistics and administrative pathway for uptake into the public sector.
This is excellent advice and on target. I would add: understand the organizations you are trying to influence. In research investigating success cases of the knowledge to policy process, (Knowledge to Policy: Making the most of development research) we found your three factors, but in addition, there were cases where the researchers had to be creative in thinking about how their findings fit. It was not only about culture but structure; helping those decision makers who are open figure out how to most effectively integrate the findings into the system. Researchers who participated in the PRSP (Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper) processes in their countries (Bangladesh, Senegal among others) were most effective when they had strong and trusting relationships with decision makers and when they understood the art of the possible in the systems and structures in place.