Friday, January 15, 2021

UKCRC/CPHC/UKRI/BCS policy engagement workshop

I spent the morning at a joint UKCRC/CPHC/UKRI/BCS workshop on policy engagement. There were a selection of interesting contirbutions from Jane Hillston Chair UKCRC, Edmund Robinson chair of CPHC, James Dracott of UKRI, Alastair Irons of the BCS, Chris Hankin of ICL and Chris Johnson, PVC, Queens University Belfast, who was repeatedly described as the hero who does  much of the heavy lifting on policy engagement & consultation work for UKCRC.

James Dracott, Sarah Main of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) and chief government adviser, Anthony Finkelstein, particularly focussed on the practicalities of effective policy engagement with really engaging talks.

I liked James's reminder of Wiio's laws of communication.

  1. Communication usually fails, except by accident.
    1. If communication can fail, it will.
    2. If communication cannot fail, it still most usually fails.
    3. If communication seems to succeed in the intended way, there's a misunderstanding.
    4. If you are content with your message, communication certainly fails.
  2. If a message can be interpreted in several ways, it will be interpreted in a manner that maximizes the damage.
  3. There is always someone who knows better than you what you meant with your message.
  4. The more we communicate, the worse communication succeeds.
    1. The more we communicate, the faster misunderstandings propagate.
  5. In mass communication, the important thing is not how things are but how they seem to be.
  6. The importance of a news item is inversely proportional to the square of the distance.
  7. The more important the situation is, the more probable you had forgotten an essential thing that you remembered a moment ago.

Sarah had a great example of CaSE's influence on immigration policy.

Firstly, they asked government to exempt scarce skills STEM areas from the tier 2 visa cap. They produced and coordinated co-signed letters and petitions engaging authoritative other organisations in a broad STEM and business coalition, emphasising the cap was causing problems. They got the media to pick up the cause and it got traction. There was significant pressure on the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd at the time, from a range of issues, not least of which was the Windrush scandal. Ms Rudd then got replaced by Savid Javid. The combination of Windrush, unfilled vacancies in an under-pressure NHS and the CaSE campaign eventually led to government exempting NHS roles from the tier 2 visa cap. Now, post Brexit, The Home Office support for a global talent visa is particularly pertinent to the STEM agenda.

In summary, Sarah concluded that effective policy engagement requires:

1.       A substantive body of evidence underpinning your case

2.       The building of relationships in the policy space

3.       Collaboration with other organisations to work together

4.       Good timing

Policy decisions are multifactorial decisions and we cannot expect to be considered the most important voice but should work to bring evidence-based influence to bear.

Anthony Finkelstein rounded off the morning with a no nonsense collection of ten things to know and do to make a policy impact. Firstly you have to know the politics. Many academics may have soft liberal or left tendencies but must recognise that the current government is Tory. Do not believe what you read in the papers – reacting to newspaper speculation often leads to circular discussion and debate bubbles that don’t make useful contributions. Remember you are one voice amongst many. Be active in being in right place at right time. If the issue is current, you are probably too late. If you are reacting to a research funding call you are a year too late. What is needed is foresight and preparation. Authority and tone count. Speaking with authority of national academies, UKCRC, high quality peer reviewed literature carries weight. A whiny critical tone will not be attended to. Know 'who and where' – know the 'geography of government.' The person handling your material is probably pretty junior. The central civil service is now very thin and very stretched. Junior civil servants welcome help (backed with evidence) not criticism. In government money is in short supply. Everything that happens does so at the expense of something else. Manage your own political capital. If your point is made elsewhere by and with authority don’t repeat it. Leverage other good voices. CaSE are brilliant at this. Encourage your students to become civil servants. It is a rich career. These people are in great demand. They will also make government technological capability better. Use government chief scientific advisers. They have significant influence and can reach directly into Downing St if needed, have regular meetings with Patrick Vallance and can reach their own permanent secretaries when they need to. In short:

1.       Issues matter and service is noble

2.       Know the politics

3.       Do not believe what you read in the papers

4.       Remember you are one voice amongst many … If the issue is current you are probably too late

5.       Authority counts, tone matters

6.       Know who and where. The person handling this is probably pretty junior (and will not welcome criticism but will welcome help, generally evidence)

7.       Money is in short supply – time and people are too

8.       Manage your political capital

9.       Encourage your students to be civil servants

10.   Use the Chief Scientific Advisors