Lessons from literature and practice: how to support successful academic-policy engagement

This blog was originally published by CAPE. You can read it on their website here

There has been increasing scholarly investigation of academic-policy engagement in recent years. This has accompanied the growth in knowledge exchange activities between academics and policymakers. With the academic-policy landscape rapidly evolving, understanding what is necessary for – and what constitutes – success becomes more important.

Investigating ‘what works’ for academic-policy engagement is one of the key objectives of CAPE. With that in mind, we’ve been investigating what common insights emerge from the growing body of literature on academic policy engagement. We reviewed the literature on academic policy engagement from a variety of disciplines – in particular, medical, environmental, psychology, and business and management – in 1475 databases (1995-2002). We identified 68 publications concerning academic policy engagement and a further 180 items of grey literature (narrowed to 15). Most of these studies explore the gap between the development of evidence and its use in practice, seeking to overcome the barriers leading to this. The numbered bibliography is provided below and cross-referenced throughout this blog.

At the same time, we’ve been reflecting on our experience in delivering CAPE over the past two years and some of the common themes that have been emerging. These largely align with the themes we’ve identified in the literature, so drawing from both the literature and our practice, we’ve identified five key considerations in supporting successful academic-policy engagement.

Prioritise stakeholder engagement

This is probably an obvious point for many of us working in the academic-policy engagement world – but that doesn’t take away from its central importance, which comes out clearly in the literature and from our experience in CAPE. Early and sustained engagement is fundamental to building understanding and trust, identifying shared priorities and objectives, and exploring different knowledge exchange and engagement activities. There are of course many different approaches to stakeholder engagement and it is not yet clear if some are more successful than others. It is also true that we are still discovering how to ensure that stakeholder engagement is always as diverse as possible.

"This is probably an obvious point for many of us working in the academic-policy engagement world - but that doesn’t take away from its central importance… early and sustained engagement is fundamental"
Above all, we’d emphasise that effective stakeholder engagement takes time and effort, and needs foregrounding, rather than being treated as an add-on (1, 2). This means allocating resource for such engagement and recognising that it needs sustaining over time, not operating as an isolated one-off (1, 3-6). For CAPE, this has meant ensuring that the project coordinators at each partner institution spend a significant amount of time and effort on building and sustaining stakeholder engagement (it thus accounts for a fairly sizeable proportion of our project resource) (7, 8).

Some of the interventions we’ve been exploring around stakeholder engagement include embedding co-production with local communities (9-15) in a project taken forward through a CAPE Policy Fellowship with the London Borough of Newham exploring citizen participation; and convening different local actors and institutions to share insights and co-develop solutions throughout the process of delivering the Oldham Economic Review.

Key articles include:

Martin S, Boaz A. Public participation and citizen- centred local government: Lessons from the best value and better government for older people pilot programmes. Public Money and Management. 2000;20(2):47-54.

Borst RAJ, Kok MO, O’Shea AJ, Pokhrel S, Jones TH, Boaz A. Envisioning and shaping translation of knowledge into action: A comparative case-study of stakeholder engagement in the development of a European tobacco control tool. Health Policy. 2019;123(10):917-23.

Lancet T. Getting political with evidence-based policy 2006 [Available from: https://odi.org/en/insights/getting-political-with-evidence-based-policy/.


Strategy matters

A clear strategy which recognises the different roles of multiple stakeholders is more likely to enable effective academic-policy engagement. Serendipity and seizing opportunities as they arise are of course important aspects of the reality of academic-policy engagement. But setting a clear strategy can better enable such serendipity (including more bottom-up approaches) whilst allowing prioritisation, particularly where resources and capacity are scarce (1, 4, 7, 8, 16-19).

This doesn’t mean being overly prescriptive or specific in defining activities (4, 16, 20-25). For CAPE our strategy has been to be as responsive as possible to policy demand and emerging opportunities (17, 20, 26-33) – therefore requiring a more agile approach to planning some project activities. But this agile approach is undertaken in the context of clear overall objectives and guided by our theory of change (34-37). And of course, moving towards the development of shared strategies on research and policy priorities can enable a more systemic approach – and improve evaluation of outcomes (16, 38-42) – to academic policy-engagement (20-25). For example, some of our ‘regional’ CAPE Policy Fellows have been working with the West Yorkshire Combined Authority and the Greater London Authority to map out policy priorities, evidence needs, and academic capacities to inform future strategy in regional academic-policy engagement.

Key articles include:

Boaz A, Hayden C. Pro-active Evaluators: Enabling Research to Be Useful, Usable and Used. Evaluation. 2002;8(4):440-53.

Hanney S, Kanya L, Pokhrel S, Jones T, Boaz A, Organization WH, et al. What is the evidence on policies, interventions and tools for establishing and/or strengthening national health research systems and their effectiveness?2020.

Tilley H. 10 things to know about how to influence policy with research 2017 [Available from: https://odi.org/en/publications/10-things-to-know-about-how-to-influence-policy-with-research/.]

Embrace complexity and uncertainty

The academic-policy landscape encompasses many complex, messy relationships as well as a plethora of non-linear processes underpinning engagement (1, 7, 43-49). This is compounded by considerable uncertainties around motivations and incentives on both sides, as well as rapidly changing policy priorities (7, 20, 50, 51). As described above, we have focused CAPE on being as responsive as possible in recognition of this. In practice, this has also meant embracing a certain degree of messiness in our own project structure and activities, which has relied heavily on the project team’s ability to work flexibly, managed unexpected challenges and respond to emerging opportunities (7, 48, 52-56).

So, this is about having the skills to manage such ambiguity and about building relationships with policy partners that can accommodate it (7, 34, 35, 48, 49). For example, CAPE’s partnerships with the Ministry of Justice and the London Research and Policy Partnership have enabled iterative discussions to identify specific policy needs and engagement activities. It is also undoubtedly enabled by dedicated resource and capacity – this degree of agility is highly challenging when engagement work is carried out in the margins of substantive work.

Key articles include:

Boaz A, Gough D. Complexity and clarity in evidence use. Evidence & Policy: A Journal of Research, Debate and Practice. 2012;8(1):3–5.

Rivas C, Tomomatsu I, Gough D. The many faces of disability in evidence for policy and practice: embracing complexity. Evidence & Policy: A Journal of Research, Debate and Practice. 2021;17(2):191–208.

Says S. To shape policy with evidence, we should celebrate both good practice and good theory 2021 [Available from: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2021/01/20/to-shape-policy-with-evidence-we-should-celebrate-both-good-practice-and-good-theory/.

Value leadership in different forms

"Research leadership which takes account of societal needs can help to foster a culture of academic-policy engagement and valuing the different roles which contribute to it, including knowledge intermediaries."

Successful academic-policy engagement requires capabilities and skills at different levels: individual, organisational, and whole-system. Recognising the value of diverse capabilities and contributions at all levels, and the role of leadership in embedding particular approaches and ways of working, is important (11, 53, 57). For example, research leadership which takes account of societal needs can help to foster a culture of academic-policy engagement and recognition of the value of different roles which contribute to it, including knowledge intermediaries (47, 58, 59).

There are also implications for key actors in the system, including universities, research funders, and policy organisations, to consider in terms of capabilities at different levels. Firstly, how they can develop individual skills and capabilities and ensure appropriate incentives for individuals who undertake academic-policy engagement (60, 61). CAPE has been piloting a programme with policy teams within the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to build team and individual capacity in evidence use and academic engagement. Secondly, what organisational structures and processes are required to enables routes for academic-policy engagement – the pairing scheme CAPE is piloting with GO-Science might offer one such route; others can be seen in the ESRC Policy Fellowships and Parliamentary Fellowships scheme, for example. And thirdly, how different components across the ecosystem can work together to ensure coordination and alignment (62-64) in enabling academic-policy engagement – initiatives such as UPEN, which connects a 100-strong network of universities with policy engagement opportunities, and IPPO, which synthesises and communicates evidence to inform policy considerations.

Key articles include:

Hanney SR, Kanya L, Pokhrel S, Jones TH, Boaz A. How to strengthen a health research system: WHO’s review, whose literature and who is providing leadership? Health Research Policy and Systems. 2020;18(1).

Walker A, Boaz A, Hurley MV. The role of leadership in implementing and sustaining an evidence-based intervention for osteoarthritis (ESCAPE-pain) in NHS physiotherapy services: a qualitative case study. Disability and Rehabilitation. 2020:1–8.

Traynor R, Dobbins M, DeCorby K. Challenges of partnership research: Insights from a collaborative partnership in evidence-informed public health decision making. Evidence and Policy. 2015;11(1):99-109.

Collaboration, coordination, capacity

It’s clear that embedding collaborative approaches – to engagement in general and to specific projects – really matters in terms of ensuring successful outcomes. As noted above, this collaboration is greatly enhanced when it is formed on the basis of early and sustained engagement between all stakeholders (7, 48, 65, 66). But it won’t necessarily happen automatically – our experience through CAPE, supported by our literature review – is that coordination and capacity are critical. By this, we mean that having dedicated knowledge brokers (7, 65) to bring different stakeholders together and foster engagement and networks, really helps to drive collaboration. And what such knowledge broker roles provide is dedicated capacity – to spend time building relationships, sustaining momentum, iterating collaborations, and checking-in frequently (7, 48, 65, 66). But of course, this role is frequently dependent on institutional systems and structures (15, 50, 59, 67, 68), including funding, training, and other incentives (7, 20, 50, 51).

Key articles include:

Campbell D, Donald B, Moore G, Frew D. Evidence check: Knowledge brokering to commission research reviews for policy. Evidence and Policy. 2011;7(1):97-107.

Oliver K, Hopkins A, Boaz A, Guillot-Wright S, Cairney P. What works to promote research-policy engagement? 2020.

van der Graaf P, Cheetham M, Redgate S, Humble C, Adamson A. Co-production in local government: process, codification and capacity building of new knowledge in collective reflection spaces. Workshops findings from a UK mixed methods study. Health Research Policy and Systems. 2021;19(1).

Conclusions

We will continue to share our learning and reflections – including from our ongoing monitoring and evaluation – for our delivery of activities. We’re also eagerly anticipating the findings from our independent evaluation, led by Transforming Evidence, into what works in terms of specific mechanisms to drive engagement. We are also going to intensify our efforts to tease out the precise role and contribution our project coordinators play as knowledge intermediaries in connecting partners, enhancing engagement and delivering impactful outcomes.

Literature

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4. Borst RAJ, Kok MO, O’Shea AJ, Pokhrel S, Jones TH, Boaz A. Envisioning and shaping translation of knowledge into action: A comparative case-study of stakeholder engagement in the development of a European tobacco control tool. Health Policy. 2019;123(10):917-23.

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