Engaging with policymakers: learnings and reflections on the Heseltine Institute's policy briefing series

Policy briefings can be effective tools for academics to engage with a wide range of policymakers. In this blog, Tom Arnold of the University of Liverpool’s Heseltine Institute reflects on some of the learning from their own series of policy briefings, which has published over 50 papers since launching in 2020. The Heseltine Institute policy briefings can be read at https://www.liverpool.ac.uk/heseltine-institute/policybriefs/.

The Heseltine Institute launched its policy briefing series in April 2020, in response to the health, economic and social crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic. Since then, we’ve published over 50 briefings from academics, local government officers, civil servants, civic activists and community practitioners. Our initial focus for the series – primarily the impact of the pandemic on Liverpool City Region – has morphed into something broader. Our current theme of ‘Renewal and Recovery’ encompasses a wide range of provocations on issues such as climate change, economic transitions and public service innovation. Recent briefings include a call for governance reform in the voluntary sector, details of a new approach to tackling racial inequality in Liverpool City Region, and analysis of the Levelling Up white paper.

Policy briefings can be valuable tools to help academics and researchers engage with policymakers. Authors of our briefings have used them to present research to government departments, collaborate with international partners, form the basis of submissions to public inquiries, engage with local and regional policymakers, and develop into fully-fledged academic papers. We know from our contact with public policy partners in Liverpool City Region and beyond that the briefings are read and used by a wide range of policymakers in their work.

Research on policy change suggests policy is rarely evidence-led, but can be ‘evidence- informed’, if advocates act effectively. For academics, that means ensuring the stories we tell through our research are crafted for the audience we hope to influence. Here are a few key lessons about writing effective policy briefings that we’ve learnt over the last two years:

  • Keep it short. Our policy briefings usually clock in at between 1,500 and 2,000 words but, in our experience, the shorter the better. The vast majority of policymakers don’t read academic papers, and may not even have access to them. Policy briefings therefore represent an excellent opportunity to present research in a condensed and digestible format.

  • Know your audience. Some policy briefings are for a general readership, others for a specific audience. Briefings in our series have targeted policymakers at national, regional and local levels, across the public, voluntary and private sectors. Whatever the audience, simple and straightforward language works best, but the odd piece of jargon for a targeted readership is fine.

  • Objective or advocacy? There are two broad types of policy briefing. Objective briefings provide balanced information and present a range of policy options. Advocacy briefings argue for a particular course of action. For authors, understanding whether their briefing is making the case for a specific policy, or setting out the problem more broadly, is central to establishing the tone of their briefing.

  • Identify some key messages. We ask our authors to identify up to five key messages they’d like readers to take away from their briefing. These can be recommendations, a summary of the main arguments in the paper, or a provocation to entice the reader to delve into the piece. As well as being useful in summarising to readers a range of sometimes complex issues, this process can help authors to understand the purpose of their piece. We also know that many readers will use the key messages to shape their own thinking.

  • Tell a story. Evidence on researcher-policy dialogue suggests crafting a compelling narrative is central to effective engagement. The idea of storytelling can be intimidating to researchers – we are, after all, presenting evidence rather than fiction. But at the heart of every good story is a coherent structure: an introduction outlining the context or problem the piece is addressing; a middle section describing the cause of the problem and what might be done to address it; and an end which brings together the key themes of the piece.


Tom Arnold is a research associate at the Heseltine Institute for Public Policy, Practice and Place, University of Liverpool. He is editor of the Institute’s policy briefing series.


Posted 01/07/2022 10:10

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