In any good comms planning exercise, we always begin with the question “what are we trying to achieve?”. And it’s no different when engaging policymakers.
In fact, meeting with policymakers is the ultimate test of your comms discipline. I know this from my experience in public affairs and in Parliament. Parliamentarians will want to understand your objectives. They’ll want some arguments, and will dissect your words for a “call to action”. So getting these right is crucial: you won’t be the only person calling that day.
On top of this, increasing social media use has given the broader public a stronger voice in the policy ecosystem. The access and transparency that social media allows has put greater pressure on elected representatives. Their constituents now have a direct and public route to a two-way dialogue. The public expects regular updates on progress. That means policymakers need to justify how they spend their time in a way they didn’t before.
And they need to justify who they are listening to.
We have long argued that think tanks need to engage with those who are impacted by policies. Doing so is an important piece in addressing a perceived gulf between ‘regular people’ and ‘the elite’. It helps nurture greater capability for meaningful societal dialogue about our most pressing issues. And, when engaging with policymakers, it shifts think tanks and policy experts from silent influencers to mediators for public benefit.
If this isn’t enough to convince you, we know policymakers themselves are acutely aware of these dynamics. In a survey of UK members of Parliament commissioned by Cast From Clay in 2020, 64% of those asked reported believing that think tanks represent the views of the urban middle class. This puts limits on think tanks’ credibility.
Policy experts have a responsibility to remain authoritative voices in key policy-making decisions, providing robust evidence and policy solutions that work in practice. But they must evolve to remain relevant.
With this in mind, I’ve put together three top tips for effectively engaging policymakers on evidence-based policy change:
1. Have a mandate
Elected representatives have loyalty to their party, and to the people who elected them to office, as well as a desire to make good policies (most of the time). So why should they listen to you?
Demonstrating that you have engaged with the people who will ultimately be impacted by the policies you are putting forward will not only strengthen your arguments on the need for a certain policy. It will also help provide solutions that will be workable in ‘the real world’. And it will help diffuse any accusations that your ideas might be biased by your perspective – political leanings, geographical location, exposure to life outside the DC or Westminster bubble.
Ultimately, if you are in the business of change, you may even need to play the long game and raise heat around your issue with a public campaign before making an approach.
2. Jump on the bandwagon
Yup you heard right. Your idea might be original and well-evidenced but if it doesn’t fit into some priority or other it’s hard to find the airtime for it. This is a good alternative to the public campaign if you don’t have time or resources to garner your own momentum.
Understand what issues the policymaker already cares about, the policy landscape they are operating in, what Bills are coming up, what debates are starting to happen, what is the media talking about.
Your chance of success relies on whether you can successfully pitch your issue as 1) timely 2) in line with their political beliefs 3) something that could be really effective – oh and you’ve probably got about 15 minutes.
3. Remember that policymakers are human
Stating the obvious? Yes. Do people often forget it? Absolutely.
Sometimes we can get carried away with the details of a policy, forgetting that some of the most impactful moments in politics happen when policymakers lean on their own or a constituent’s story to bring to life an argument.
Not only are policymakers human, they are not always experts. Most elected representatives are generalists. The best have a knack for quickly getting to grips with how complex issues impact their constituents or the wider economy.
We have plenty of advice on how to turn technical expert reports into a compelling story. The tips in this article will help you take the first steps to bringing your research into a place that policymakers can act from.