Workshop: communicating research to policymakers for action
In this post I share three key success factors for researchers to engage with policymakers.
I also offer three lessons from delivering a workshop to high-level members of the National Institute of Policy Studies in Nigeria.
This workshop on communicating research to policymakers for action took place at the University of Sheffield.
Communicating research to policymakers for action: three success factors
I’ve been working in the research communication space in the UK for nearly five years. I knew I wanted to pursue a career in this field when I conducted my final year dissertation.
My topic was disseminating evidence to policymakers. The title of my project was ‘Closing the gap between evidence production and policy implementation using two innovative communication tools’.
During my research, I learned that there are three key ingredients researchers need to be aware of when engaging with policymakers.
First, access. Having access to people with decision-making power is crucial. Not having this type of access can often lead to frustration and power imbalances. Yet, developing relationships with people who can do something about your research is a critical success factor.
Second, windows of opportunity. Knowing when is the right moment to present information to key stakeholders is equally important. Within a policy cycle, there are discreet moments of influence and opportunities to present evidence. Researchers need to know when these opportunities arise and seize them.
Lastly, presentation of information. Assuming you only have 10 minutes of a busy policymaker’s time at the right window of opportunity, you need to present information to them in a way that speaks to their needs and gaps in knowledge. The language and the format need to be personalised to them and quite literally speak their language. The reality is that no one will read a 30-page report, and using that as a communication tool will most likely lead to a waste of precious time for both parties.
Communicating research to policymakers for action: UK vs Nigeria
In our experience of working with over 100 researchers across 10 UK universities, having access, a window of opportunity and an appropriate presentation format is a rare, but possible, sight.
The truth is that it’s a tough balance to achieve, and it often involves a lot of preparation and years of developing relationships, until researchers are presented with the right audience, opportunity, and have the right engagement tool.
I’m aware that here I speak mainly from a UK perspective. Yet, last month I had the pleasure of learning about a different context, admirable in its capacity and scale: Nigeria, the largest African country by population, counting 200+m people.
In Nigeria, there is a highly-regarded think-tank called the National Institute of Policy Studies (NIPSS). This is described as the ‘apex policy think-tank’ in the country. One of the flagship courses of this institute is the ‘Senior Executive Course‘.
Every year, 70 individuals from the highest level of decision making in various key industries (give examples) complete this course.
The most fascinating thing about this programme is its close link to real-life policy. Every year, the president of Nigeria sets a theme to the 70-member cohort and asks them to research it and come up with recommendations. Talk about real policy impact!
Not only are they supposed to complete this enormous research project, but they also have the opportunity, during an entire day at the end of their course, to submit their findings directly to the president and to the most appropriate ministers. For 2019 the theme is ‘Funding Universal Health Coverage in Nigeria’.
This set up is truly remarkable. NIPSS is known for its rigorous research standards and for selecting top individuals for their programme. Therefore, it is genius that the president uses this high-quality human resource to research a topic of importance to the country and also gives them the opportunity to offer concrete recommendations and ways forward.
Typically, every year the NIPSS cohort submits a 400-page detailed report and a 30-page executive summary to the president and the ministers. But, we all know that it is rare for policymakers to read such lengthy documents. And the president of Nigeria made no effort to hide it.
In fact, this year, for the first time, he asked the NIPSS cohort to present him with a 2-page (!) summary of the report. You can imagine the panic on the delegates… how to overcome this challenge?
So, having secured both access and the window of opportunity (14th of November), it was clear that the Nigerian delegates needed help presenting their research in accessible, visual and actionable ways.
Therefore, the aim of the workshop was to offer participants a framework of creating policy briefs that are targeted towards the president of Nigeria and the Ministers of Health and Finance.
It is not often that our projects get to be so closely linked to policy processes so it was a true honour to be asked to collaborate with this distinguished team.
Lessons learned from the workshop
The structure of this workshop was similar to our flagship workshop on communicating research beyond academia. At the same time, I tailored the content to this unique Nigerian context and to the needs of my audience.
The interactive elements were present giving an opportunity to the NIPSS delegates to directly apply the theory of creating policy briefs. Having these practical elements was crucial because the learning acquired in Sheffield had to be passed down to the NIPPS team in Nigeria supporting them to create these policy briefs.
Facilitating this workshop was a true honour and a rare opportunity. In many ways, I believe that it tested my ability to quickly adapt to new contexts and unique needs, to engage with a completely different audience, and to test the applicability of our tools and methods to non-UK contexts.
Having reflected on how the workshop went, I’d like to share three main lessons in case you are on the receiving or delivering end of such a complex workshop.
Lesson 1: It’s OK if the first day feels like it’s not going anywhere
The workshop delivered to the Nigerian team was a 3-day event overall. Research Retold’s involvement covered one full day of these (the second day), yet I was present for the first day of the workshop as well.
On this first day, the NIPSS team introduced the topic and the context of this seminal report. For this, we heard a series of 5 presentations. Key aspects of the content were captured in a visual map by Laura Evans from Nifty Fox Creative, a visual storyteller and live-scribe.
There was a lot of new information for the UK team and it took a while for everyone to get on the same page. Towards the end of the day, it didn’t feel like we had made much progress. There was repetition of certain ideas and some confusion as to where the session was headed.
However, upon reflection, that first day was an opportunity to hash out ideas and to air out what issues people felt strongly about. Granted, if we had framed it that way, maybe it would have felt like we achieved our aim!
All this to say that, if the time permits, using the first day as an opportunity to explore ideas in an unstructured fashion is not a bad idea.
Unsurprisingly, I enjoy structure and thrive on organisation, so this sounds like my idea of hell. Yet, provided that on the second day people are introduced to a bit more structure, start the day with new energy, and the tone is set to achieve some practical aims, I believe the overall session can get back on track.
For example, on the second day, when it was time to deliver the Research Retold workshop on communicating research to policymakers for action, I took a few steps.
I rearranged the chairs in a more collaborative way, removed any surplus furniture, placed name tags and distributed an agenda of the day, pens and paper. This setting was calming and organised, inviting participants to take the new day as a fresh start, a new opportunity to get clarity on their aims and make progress.
Using insights from the first day through the helpful visual note-taking done by Laura, we spent the first hour clarifying aspects of the project and creating consensus.
Ultimately, it is not all lost, so don’t lose faith and think of ways to turn that initial confusion into clarity and momentum for the next day.
Lesson 2: It’s OK to ask that ‘obvious’ question
When the project was introduced, I had the feeling that everyone in the room knew what the context was and I was the only one who needed to learn everything from scratch. Throughout the first day, I was taking notes not wanting to forget anything and aiming to familiarise myself as soon as possible with the new information.
In truth, most of or at least some of the information was new to everyone in the room. In fact, even the delegates that had travelled from Nigeria were able to learn new information from their fellow colleagues.
However, I felt this pressure to not necessarily ask for clarification on things until I was certain I had heard all of the information. Until of course I stopped waiting, and over lunch went straight to the Director-General and asked him to clarify whether my understanding of the context was right. To my delight, he said that I was correct. However, I am not sure that everyone was clear on that point by lunchtime.
This made me reflect on the need to use opportunities for questions to ask those obvious ones. While it may feel uncomfortable knowing you may look ‘silly’ or that people would think the answer is clear, you are probably doing everyone a service by asking the one thing everyone is thinking of.
Lesson 3: Be flexible, allow opportunities for jokes and connection
Since the workshop was stretched over three days, there was some flexibility to spread the information out and not cram everything into a short space of time. However, as mentioned, given the fuzzy focus of day one, I was keen to ensure we were achieving some concrete aims for the delegates on the second day.
Despite my desire to keep things on track and on time, I realised I had to be flexible. This is how learned this.
Two of the nine Nigerian delegates were meant to leave at 11am that day, which was after one hour of my workshop. Having this time limit meant three things.
- First, we wanted to give the two delegates a last chance to express their views in the group about issues they really cared regarding the report.
- Second, since we would not have their input for the full second day, we focused on getting as much value out of them as possible. To build that consensus and clarity with them in the room we needed to allocate a bit more time than anticipated to that part.
- Third, having them leaving earlier created a disruption in the flow of the workshop. This meant that when it was time for them to leave, we took a break in the session.
At the same time, I learned that the delegation was keen to take group photos while everyone was present. As you can imagine, this offered plenty of opportunities for laughter (I had to set up the phone on timer on a chair to get the shot), informal chats and rapport building among the participants.
I stress this because we could have been sticklers for time and insisted that the session stayed on track. However, the flexibility and goodwill created in those moments of connection helped the session progress with great success.
Another example of being flexible and receptive to the audience’s needs was allowing time in the workshop for prayer time at a set time. These moments of respite allowed the group to come back with reinvigorated energy to the session.
Thanks for reading this post and I hope it gave you some practical insights into workshop management and delivery, as well as some key insights into the key factors to keep in mind when engaging with policymakers.
I’m also thankful to Dr Muhammad Saddiq from Scharr for the opportunity to deliver the workshop and join the session.
Myself and the wider Research Retold team extend our support to the group in the future to create the policy briefs and help affect positive change in the Nigerian health system.