Making policy research more accessible for government practitioners

23rd July 2020

Author: Maria Gintova-Ryerson University, Canada

Bridging the gap between academia and practice has been a matter of many discussions, both within academic and practitioner communities. There are many reasons as to why this gap continues to exist for the field of public policy, e.g. lack of consideration of non-peer review publications for tenure, lack of time due to the need to balance between teaching and research commitments, and/or addressing emerging issues. While I recognise that these are systemic issues that undoubtedly impact ability to write for and engage with practitioner audiences, this blog post will not be addressing them.

The information below might be helpful for those researchers whose goal is to make their research accessible for practitioner audiences, so they can potentially influence government decision-makers to bring about change.

Full disclosure: I belong to both worlds – the academic one and the practitioner one. Suggestions listed below stem from my personal experiences as a researcher in public policy and administration, and a public servant working for the Ontario Government in Canada.

Government officials are interested in solution-oriented research. A lot of policy research does identify existing problems and even offer some recommendations. However, it lacks concrete ways of "getting there." It is important to keep this in mind when presenting at a practitioner conference and/or while providing your expertise to government.

Further, governments around the world operate under a lot of constraints. Therefore, government officials look for something which is implementable. Governments are very slow in adjusting to change and are looking for solutions that can be "quick wins." This also provides the background for building a trusted relationship and opportunity to bring in innovative ideas when the relationship has been already established.

Many government officials will not have a good grasp on what, e.g., a logistic regression is. That is why plain language and visuals are so critical. The idea and the reasoning behind why a certain issue is an important one should be really crisp and clear. Visualising research results on an infographic can be helpful.

Modern policy problems are complex and thus require attention of multiple government agencies and levels of government. Interdisciplinarity of research helps to account for some of this complexity and provide solid evidence for decision-makers to engage with a variety of different stakeholders.

A lot of times governments look for expertise that is not available within the public service. An opportunity to serve as an expert on government committees, stakeholder tables and/or research projects can be certainly a good one for influencing how policies are developed, implemented, and/or evaluated.

Although it was briefly mentioned above, building trust and relationships is really-really-really crucial. Only looking at government officials as research participants, who will read a study after it is published, is not enough. Collaboration is a two-way street and taking time to understand priorities, challenges, and jointly develop solution takes time, effort, and focus.

The suggestions discussed above are general in nature and do not take into account specific context that will differ not just from country to country but between different units within the same government agency. However, they provide some insights on what government practitioners might look for.

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