Finding a route into policy

Rethinking Policy Impact
Publication Date
Jill Rutter

Policy makers in Whitehall used to be taught to follow the ROAMEF model for policy making – to start with the rationale for a policy intervention, translate that into objectives and then follow a series of discrete steps that would end with evaluation and adaptation. 

Some policies do indeed follow that ‘rational’ model of policy-making: the process that led the Pensions Commission to recommend the introduction of automatic enrolment and its implementation over the next near decade is regarded as the ‘gold standard’ of this approach. But it is also seen as very much the exception. Most policy-makers, most of the time, do not have the luxury of that approach with all the opportunities it presents to feed research in.

This blog is part of the research project Rethinking Policy Impact

A UK-wide conversation on the principles, goals and approaches that should guide the policy impact agenda in higher education.

Find out more about the Rethinking Policy Impact project

So how, in a non-rational world, can research impact policy?

First, many policy ideas are developed not in government, but by the opposition. Oppositions are – at least compared to government – time rich and resource poor. They need to rethink their policy offering at the last election and be ready to offer new, attractive and convincing responses to problems without being able to draw on the official machine for support. So they will look to think tanks and experts for ideas that can find their way into their manifesto. Think tanks have limited internal expertise and research capacity, but are skilled in synthesising and repackaging for policy-maker and political audiences. They benefit too in many cases from their proximity to MPs and officials.

Researchers can also build more direct connections into policy working groups or feed their work in through those who are in regular conversation with shadow teams. Well supported, well-evidenced new ideas – or new analyses of long-standing problems – can be gold dust.

In government, appetite and opportunity for research is more variable. Timetables can be short, and research can be little more than a harassed official undertaking a quick google search (note google, not google scholar) to find out what has been written on a specific subject before a minister needs to go off to a meeting or make a speech. 

At the other end of the spectrum, research might be commissioned in anticipation of policy issues to be addressed. At times, departments issue formal calls for evidence which is the earliest, most formative stage of policy development. Furthermore, departments are all supposed to set out their Areas of Research Interest which give details of their main research questions – though these are of very variable quality. Those come in addition to individual research commissions. Other opportunities are present if governments set up formal reviews; those conducting them are usually keen to demonstrate that they have drawn from a wide evidence base.

In between there will be other opportunities to use research to influence policy-makers, but also those who scrutinise them. The problem is that too much policy is set in stone before external input can be brought to bear, and that by the time it can, the momentum makes change too difficult. To be effective influence needs to be early.

But research can also help shape the environment in which policy is made. It can help shape understanding of problems. Indeed, one reason for policy failure is that it starts from an incomplete or inadequate understanding of the problem being addressed. It can also help highlight issues or trends that policy-makers will need to address.

In short, policy-making is a messy world. That means there can never be a clear prescription of how to insert research into the policy-making. However, it also means being alive to the many opportunities that might present themselves.

Jill Rutter, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Government and Senior Research Fellow at the UK in a Changing Europe

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.