How to influence policymakers - ESRC

Contents

Different types of policymakers

How you can best influence policymakers will depend on their roles.

MPs

You should:

  • familiarise yourself with the political process so that you know how and when you can influence government legislation
  • check the UK Parliament website every Friday morning to find out whether any pertinent debates or committee meetings have been scheduled for the following week – these offer an opportunity to contact relevant policymakers, who can make use of your research findings
  • only contact MPs and peers who have already expressed an interest in the area of your research
  • remember that most MPs and peers will use research only to the extent to which it impacts upon public policy in a practical sense. They are usually in search of information that can be used to strengthen their particular point of view.

The government

The most important target audience for influencing public policy should be the government – both local and national government, politicians and civil servants.

Bear in mind that peers, MPs and public servants receive hundreds of letters and emails every week. You must grab their attention quickly. Say within the first paragraph that you are writing to them because you know of their interest in the subject.

Civil servants are more likely than politicians to be interested in the details of research and research findings. They tend to work in the same position for a number of years, and often specialise in very detailed and technical aspects of policy.

Make sure that any briefing documents you supply are no longer than three pages – if people want further detail, they will request it. Civil servants are better able to appreciate and receive longer documents, but you should also provide an executive summary.

For details of committee memberships, forthcoming business, parliamentary and legislative procedures, contact the information offices in:

You should check any relevant policy issues that may have been devolved.

Ministers

The minister in charge of a government department is responsible for the policy issues and associated legislation related to the work of that department. These responsibilities are delivered through the department and its delivery partners.

As senior politicians, ministers are highly public and visible people. It is therefore easy to identify which ministers in which departments have responsibility for the policy issues relevant to your work.

You should bear in mind that influencing policy at this level requires a precisely targeted approach. For example, do not assume that every minister in the Department for Education will take an equal interest in your policy area.

Find out which minister deals with your subject. This information is available on the departments’ websites. Only send information about your research to the minister responsible. Many policy issues cut across the boundaries of several departments and a number of ministers may be involved in their development. You will need to find out which ministers are involved and what their responsibilities are.

It is a good idea to circulate summaries of your research to any cabinet committee that deals with relevant policy. Even if the submission is not seen directly by the ministers themselves, it will be taken into account by their officials

Remember, ministers are less readily available than ordinary MPs and peers. They can be difficult to reach as you must go through their civil servants. Consider using the media to promote your research findings – both as a goal in itself and as a way of communicating indirectly with ministers.

For up-to-date information on UK government departments and ministers, see the Cabinet Office website.

Special advisers

All cabinet ministers, and some middle-ranking ministers, have at least one special adviser. These are appointed personally by the minister, but are subject to the approval of the Prime Minister.

Special advisers are usually full-time political appointees, but when they take up the post they become temporary civil servants, paid from public funds and based in the minister’s department.

Special advisers organise the political – as opposed to the official – side of the minister’s life. Their role is to:

  • write the minister’s political speeches
  • advise the on the political impact of policy issues
  • brief the media on political matters
  • receive representations about the minister’s responsibilities from outside organisations and researchers
  • participate in party policymaking reviews – these are in fact significant elements of their jobs.

The special adviser acts as a channel of communication from outside bodies and individuals to the minister. They are one of the most important sources of political intelligence for the minister, and therefore need to have a wide network of contacts from whom they can pick up ideas.

Many organisations compete for the attention of special advisers, since they are able to present information directly to the minister. It is important that you target the special advisers most relevant to your research area. Once you have, ensure you keep them informed about the findings of key social science research.

The Civil Service

The Civil Service is responsible for developing and implementing government legislation. Much of the detailed thinking about government policy is undertaken by civil servants.

The structure of the Civil Service

At the head of every government department is its most senior official, the permanent secretary. At the next step down, there are six or seven deputy secretaries or directors who oversee the work of individual policy directorates.

Each directorate is subdivided into a number of different sections, which handle specific elements of that policy area. These sections will then be split up again, so that it becomes possible to work down the whole chain of command to determine precisely which civil servants work on specific policy issues.

Role of the Civil Service

The Civil Service is permanent and apolitical. Politicians make policy, largely based on civil service advice. Civil servants then implement the policy, whether or not they happen to personally agree with it.

Civil servants are important to your impact plan because their advice to ministers is so significant in the framing of policy proposals.

Also, civil servants tend to become highly expert in their individual areas. Although ministers have ultimate responsibility, they may not stay at the same department for long, so it is difficult for them to become fully immersed in all the nuances of policy.

Communicating with the Civil Service

Find out where power and influence are located within the hierarchy and make your approach at that level. This is not necessarily at the top – permanent secretaries only concern themselves with issues of the highest importance.

Identify the civil servants who have responsibility for your policy area. It is these officials, probably five or six grades from the top of a department, who will provide the first draft of analysis and advice on the relevant policy. Influence them, and you can influence all those at higher levels.

Check the website of any relevant departments regularly to keep track of policy announcements, press releases, ministerial speeches and consultation papers.

Government Social Research service

The Government Social Research service provides evidence to understand, develop, implement, monitor and evaluate government policies and services.

As a professional group these researchers are an important route into central government. For the majority of projects they are key to ensuring that research findings enter the evidence base for policy. Other analysts such as statisticians and economists are also important.

Government Social Research has members working within all the main government departments as well as the devolved administrations and other government bodies.

Its purpose is to:

  • provide government with objective, reliable, relevant and timely social research
  • support the development, implementation, review and evaluation of policy and delivery
  • ensure policy debate is informed by the best research evidence and thinking.

Political parties

It is important not to overlook the role of political parties in formulating policy. Many policies are overtly political rather than administrative, so the main force behind them will have come from within the parties.

Each party has established a number of policy groups, which may include politicians, party members and outside experts. They also have teams of researchers whose job is to come up with good ideas that can be translated into policy commitments.

Contact the political parties’ headquarters to find out which policy groups are working on areas related to your research. This will give you access to the parties’ internal policymaking structures.

Think tanks

Think tanks are organisations whose purpose is to interest politicians in ideas. They supply political parties with broad concepts which can serve as the foundation for developing detailed policies.

Many operate across the spectrum of policy issues, while others tend to focus on a few particular areas. Some are well connected with the Labour party, others with the Conservative party, and others again are generally independent.

What unites them is that they are involved in politics as a battle of ideas. As such, think -tanks are always eager to find new, even radical, thinking about policy issues. This makes them a natural target for social science researchers wishing to influence the policy agenda.

Last updated: 14 October 2021

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