Roshnee Patel, Deputy Director at MoJ, talks about who advisers are, what good advice entails and what pressures they navigate, to help academics, understand how best to engage in that context.

 

Who are the advisers and decision-makers?

The world of advising Ministers in Government can often feel opaque, so I have spent some time trying to demystify some of this for the academic community via various masterclasses over the last few years. My latest one with the Universities Policy Engagement Network and UKRI Future Leader Fellow Development Network, was an attempt to home in on the various types of pressure that exist in this space. It’s worth noting at the outset that there are a range of professions across the civil service who advise decision-makers. Decision-makers in this context include senior civil servants (including up to Permanent Secretary) as well as Ministers.

 

What is good advice?

The process for getting advice to these decision-makers can be quite complex and varied, and can be of written or oral nature. While some Ministers prefer an oral briefing, all advice needs to be captured in writing to ensure accountability, clarity and that well informed decisions are being made. This is even more important during a crisis or when things are moving quickly.

Good advice to decision-makers (Ministers or senior civil servants) often captures a wide range of factors which advisers have to martial and balance. The components can include:

  • Issue/background: explaining in plain English (no jargon or technical language) why you are writing to the decision maker.
  • Parliamentary Handling: does this include a debate, a hot topic of the House, particular peer/MP of interest, legislation, Select Committee etc?
  • Finance: what is the financial envelope here and what are the implications? Is this part of a spending review bid or programme funding etc.
  • Commercial: is there a supplier, contract, tender, grant or other arrangement which is relevant? Are there risks to these arrangements?
  • Analysis: what pertinent data/information/evidence is relevant here to highlight?
  • Recommendation: be clear about what you need from the decision maker.
  • Legal implications: is there a pending Judicial Review or are there legal risks including equality considerations?
  • Timing: when do you need a decision and why.
  • Options: summarise the key points of an option analysis

 

What are the pressures we need to navigate?

Operating under pressure feels like the norm to me but when I started to really think about it, underneath that feeling lies a number of factors. I want to turn to each of those, so the picture of the landscape is clearer to you.

Pace of delivery: People expect results quickly and very much reflects how we operate in our society, expectations of public service is no different. With everything feeling more urgent, we risk not prioritising the important.

ROAMEF: Rather than thinking of policy development as a cycle, I think of it as a journey – some policies get stuck in one part of the journey for all kinds of reasons, we take often take one step forward, and two steps back.

Inclusive Decision Making: How can we make decisions if we are not reflective of the public we serve? The more diverse our advisers, the better our collective intelligence from different life experiences.

Implementation: There is increased pace between problem diagnosis and the delivery stage which makes this even more crucial to get right fast. Delivery is one of three elements identified in the policy profession as core to what we do. So how do you maximise successful delivery?

Capability/retention: The role of the civil service has been subject to change, particularly over the last decade or so. The skills now required to succeed have evolved – a focus on digital and project profession as enablers. Alongside getting the right people in, we have a lot to do to keep them there and retain talented people.

Risk Appetite: most civil servants I know operate with a low tolerance of risk – in my experience this is due to three main factors – failure is often not a palatable option, taxpayers’ money is at stake and time to experiment is often not afforded to you. How do you innovate in a low-risk environment?

Accountability/Scrutiny: accountability and scrutiny are fundamentally important in Government. Government has a number of forums where decisions are made, but there are a number of governance routes and processes which can add significant time to the approval process on any area, particularly if seen as ‘novel and/or contentious’.

 

How do you (an academic) make the best of this situation?

Realising the wider context of what is happening when you are preparing to engage, arms you with a good sense of the situation to better approach that. Good engagement, in my opinion, is where there is clarity and expectations on both sides and honesty of what is or is not within the scope to engage on.

Here are some top tips on how to initiate effective engagement with civil servants who are advisers:

  • Be clear what success looks like with this engagement for you.
  • Know your offer/worth/value in the relationship and don’t be afraid to let that be known.
  • Are you wanting to influence or inform? Know which side of the spectrum you want to lean towards and do that consciously. Do you just pass on your research, do you get involved in developing options, do you lobby or are you an “honest broker”?
  • Practice telling your story – make it engaging and of interest.
  • Maintain relationships – just like any relationship, there needs to be effort on both parts to be healthy. But in the majority of cases, this effort is worth the perseverance.

When you are under pressure, we can often make mistakes or lose sight of our mission: public service. This is why I believe the leaders in the civil service needs to be resilient, innovative and empathetic.

 

By Helen Freeman, Policy Engagement Manager 

Our 2023 monthly policy events ‘Research and Public Policy: Increasing Impact with Professor Graeme Reid’ had a fantastic grand finale in Belfast this May. This five-part series of in-person events, taking place around the UK, has given Fellows access to someone with a lifetime of experience in policy from multiple perspectives. We’ve been posting key messages from these events if you’ve been unable to attend, whilst respecting the “Chatham House Rules” which prompted people to ask questions and seek guidance in confidence.

We’ve organised the insights from Graeme and his guests into three themes: orientation, messaging, and relationships and access.

The first blog in this series focused-on orientation and provided advice to help Fellows understand the process and eco system of policy making so they can prepare and engage to best effect.

The second blog focused on messaging and introduced the concept of a “360 approach” where the good the bad and the ugly of a policy argument (and all the stakeholders in between!) are known to you, helping strengthen your message to maximise awareness, interest and action.

This third and final blog will discuss relationships and provide some top tips on effective networking, building a strong policy community, and making sure your message is heard by the right people at the right time.

Much of the policy buzz is in and around Westminster so you’ll see many opportunities to join policy related events in the London area. As Prof. Reid says… “The more coffee you drink with Westminster staff, the more policy impact you’ll make!”. While building networks in and around Westminster will indeed lead to new connections and policy advising journeys, the lines of communication in devolved nations or local authorities are much shorter and also provide an effective alternative way in. You may be able to make quicker progress and meet equally relevant people by attending events outside of London and in regions where your research-policy field is applicable.

These comments were echoed by Ann Watt from Pivotal, our Belfast guest for the final seminar. Whether you choose to attend local authority, devolved nation, or Westminster events you will no doubt be exposed to civil servants. Speaking with civil servants will not only allow you to widen your reach and get your name known, but help you understand the time constraints and competing priorities they experience in their roles. You may also be able to connect with Members of Parliament, Members of Scottish Parliament, Members of the Senedd, or Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly (also known as Members of the Legislative Assembly). Building professional relationships with an open mind will likely lead to benefits you don’t even know about yet and help you to gain an appreciation of the wider state of affairs around your research field! Ann advised that these networking events are also opportune moments to identify the right people, departments and committees to send relevant reports to, such as briefing papers, publications or evidence notes. When engaging with specific committees, all information submitted must be shared with committee members and can even be added to meeting agendas.

Prof. Reid recommends getting comfortable in any policy-related networking event by simply attending a few, understanding the types of people there, and what brought them to that specific event. A great place to start is by checking your professional institute’s events page. Here you’ll likely be among like-minded people with a common interest. From here, you can iteratively map out the communities and networks around you and see where you might fit into the landscape. Your local authority might already have links with your institute, which is also worth pursuing.

Some institutes/societies that have a dedicated policy team and associated events and special interest groups include the Royal Society, the Insitute of Physics and the Royal Society of Chemistry. There are also policy-research organisations that host events to bring communities together such as The Foundation for Science and Technology, and The Learned Society of Wales. If you’re not sure what your institute/society offers then get in touch with them to find out. Many of these organisations, as well as committees and governmental departments, are active on social media so keep an eye on Twitter and LinkedIn for opportunities and events. Social media can also be a great platform for you to share reports and relevant evidence and engage with inquiries and relevant stakeholders. This will help you to build your reputation and be one of the “go to” experts for a particular topic. Bringing an issue to the attention of policy makers can often happen via press or media coverage of your work so try engaging with national (trusted) media channels or your University’s local press office.

As you become more comfortable networking at policy events you’ll have the opportunity to perfect your “elevator pitch” for what brought you to the event, and what you’d like out of any interactions. Talking to a wide range of people will help you develop the “360” approach we discussed in the last blog by encountering multiple viewpoints on the same topic. While debating ideas with people you’ve just met might seem daunting, it will enable you to shape your ideas and fine tune that take home message you want to convey!

When asked about building the right networks for long-term impact, our guest speaker in Cardiff, Dewi Knight (Director of PolicyWISE) shared his 3 Ps: Profile. Persuasion, and (big) Picture. He recommended spending time on building a strong network and audience by regularly attending events and engaging with the community to strengthen your own profile. Once trust is established with the right people, you are in a better position to persuade them to consider your evidence and advice. Finally, you can then set the scene for the bigger picture to make sure you are having maximum impact with the right people at the right time.

During our Belfast event, with guest Ann Watt from Pivotal, we considered the challenges of networking, influencing and general policy engagement in the absence of any government (as is the ongoing case at Stormont). While it may be difficult, Ann reassured us it is not impossible, and conversations can still happen! She recommended reaching out to the Northern Ireland Civil Service who support the Assembly, the Executive and the institutions of government, and the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. While these teams are under huge pressure and the stress of legal challenge, they are still in a position to receive evidence and meet with subject experts. It is also useful to note here that the Members of the Legislative Assembly are still in post and can therefore still be contacted directly.

We hope you’ve enjoyed reading the three blogs associated with the ‘Research and Public Policy’ event series. With a bit of orientation, Dewi’s 3 Ps and Graeme’s 360 approach we’re sure you can kick start your policy engagement journey!

The next policy chapter for the Future Leaders Fellows Development Network will be in collaboration with the Universities Policy Engagement Network (UPEN). Together we are offering a series of online Masterclasses. The next one is 19th July 2023 (13:00 – 15:00) Cross Cutting Policy Challenge: Tackling Obesity.

You can find out more about our policy events by watching the first of our Research Insights films ‘Research and Policy Engagement’ with guest Professor Graeme Reid.  Watch it here!

For those interested in communicating their work to the wider public and promoting their research concisely and accurately, the Future Leaders Fellows Development Network are also offering training on working with the media. This is an online event on 30th October (10:00 – 11:00) Working with the Media