The humanities and Engaging with Government

By Marianna Dudley

The Power and the Water is an environmental history project.  We are investigating how our twenty-first century understandings and experiences of place and community have been shaped by historical environmental processes. But, in creating the project and shaping its research path, thoughts of current and future environmental challenges were never far away.

We want, from the outset, to connect our research into the pasts of our project sites with possibilities for their futures.  Working with external partners such as Northumbrian Water and engaging with local independent experts such as Dr Jim Rieuwerts (a sough historian working with Carry and Georgina in Derbyshire) is helping us identify research questions and think about how our research will be useful for government, energy and utilities companies, heritage bodies, and local interest groups. Our interest in water management and infrastructure feels particularly timely in the wake of the extensive flooding here in the Southwest and other parts of Britain.  Now, questions of the impacts of climate change, discussions of best practice and planning for the future in water management and infrastructure, and the evident power of water to impact on lives and livelihoods have made many of the issues we are investigating part of widespread public debate and put them firmly on the policy agenda. The AHRC-Institute for Government’s ‘Engaging with Government 2014’ course that Post Doctoral Research Assistant (PDRA) Carry van Lieshout and I attended in London 11-13 February couldn’t have come at a better time.

The Institute for Government (IfG) sits just off the Mall, deliberately close to the centres of power in Whitehall. The UK’s leading independent charity and think tank promoting more effective government, it works with cross-party and Whitehall governance to increase government effectiveness and promote good policy making, with an emphasis on the use of evidence to support policy. As academics, the key way to influence or engage with policy is by presenting our research as evidence to inform decisions.  The course taught us that it matters how we go about doing this, and imparted some techniques for doing so. Being aware of the changing political landscape, for example, is helpful: crisis points and changes of office create windows of opportunity, for it is at these times that new approaches are often taken, and policy-makers are looking for experts (us!) and new ideas.   It also matters how our research itself is presented.  It must be accessible, succinct, direct – and, with the preference of civil servants for statistics – full of usable data.  For us arts and humanities scholars, this presented some issues that we worked through over the course –  more on which later.

Jill Rutter is programme director at the IfG and led the course, which was specifically for Arts and Humanities scholars working in areas with the potential to engage with policy. Before working at the IfG, Jill was director of strategy and sustainable development at DEFRA; previous civil service roles include policy lead on tax, development and local government finance.  She was able to explain to us the structures of government and processes of policy-making that are necessary to know in order to engage meaningfully with decision-making.  This crash-course in the theories and realities of politics and policy-making was one of the most useful aspects of the course.  What was made clear, across the three days, was that in order to be heard by civil servants you have to know who to target.  You essentially have to do your homework by mapping out where the power lies, and who makes the decisions.  This is one area of engaging with government that we, as researchers, should all be able to do.  We are well-versed in doing our background reading and establishing key research questions.  By extending early project research to include stakeholder mapping – identifying key figures and networks in your subject or case study area – not only are you better placed to connect with relevant decision makers, but you have a usable working picture of relationships and decision-making in your area that can aid your research too.  Stakeholder mapping in this respect is a win-win exercise that I suspect many of us do to some extent anyway, but that benefits from a rigorous and focused approach.

IfG brought in a range of people working at the heart of government to speak to us, including Stephen Aldridge, Director of Analysis and Innovation at the Department for Communities and Local Government. Stephen was convinced of the importance of the humanities (especially history) to his Department’s policymaking, but recognized that there was a heavy preference for statistical evidence. If government ultimately wants neat stats and big data, how can we – who work with narrative, long-term change, visual and textual documents, testimonies and case studies – hope to register on the short attention span of a time-harried civil servant?

There are ways, and the responsibility lies with us.  We need to make it easy for non-academics to quickly understand our research.  By quickly, I mean, in a paragraph. Producing regular newsletters and blog posts (tick) creates a flow of information through which we can create an audience for our work, from stakeholders we already work with to those we think should be taking notice. But in this form of communication, brevity and clarity are key.  We can (and do!) save methodological concerns and academic debate for journal articles and extended dialogues. When we take our work into the public, non-academic sphere, things like presentation and design can also make a real difference to how it is received, and are worth budgeting for where possible.

If we are looking to engage with government and gain a voice in decision-making processes, we must be prepared to raise our own profiles as academics. We are looked to as experts in our field.  A public profile and willingness to engage with media outlets are part of this. The IfG’s director of communications, Nadine Smith, impressed upon us the power of networking, through twitter – gaining info on public lectures, events etc. – and in person.  Though using social media was a predictable suggestion, the reminder to use it proactively (seeking out key figures, gaining public voice) and intelligently (directing people to our website and blog posts, where they can learn more about our project) was useful. The course achieved the impossible, and got me to finally join Twitter: @DudleyMarianna; project feed: @envirohistories.

Hearteningly, several speakers confirmed the value of a good case study.  We already know this: part of the previous, AHRC-funded ‘Local Places, Global Processes’ research network (part of the Researching Environmental Change programme) was to explore why the local can convey global narratives such as climate change in a meaningful way. This new project, having grown out of that research network, is enacting those convictions by placing local case studies at the heart of the research methodology.  But it is great to hear that those within (or with the ear of) government agree.  This is an area, I think, where arts and humanities scholars have a real chance of communicating change and perceptions of change, where numbers and data cannot.  Case studies, connecting pasts and futures, the local with the global, the personal with the societal and environmental, are the secret weapon in our toolkit.

The last word on this (bearing in mind my point about brevity) I give to Wayne Martin, a philosopher whose Essex Autonomy Project is influencing how government deals with issues of patient autonomy in mental healthcare.  Wayne gave us a masterclass in how to connect with multiple external partners and influence policy.  Yet, he said, at the end of the day it comes down to one thing:  good research.  Really, really good research.  Because if we are researching the things that matter, producing work that deserves to be heard, and working hard to make sure it is disseminated, then people will take notice. And that, I think, we can all do.

With thanks to the AHRC and the Institute for Government for running the course; and for Jill Rutter, for delivering it with indomitable energy.


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