Loud & Clear: You Should Listen To What I’ve Got To Say

Can arts and humanities academics play a useful role in policy-making? Do we have expertise that policy-makers value, or should value if they only knew what we do? Courtesy of the AHRC, Natalie Banner spent 3 days at the Institute for Government last week to find out.

I wonder if your interest was piqued by that title? I may have your attention for now, but you’re a time-pressed person with lots of decisions to make and I don’t have very long to convince you that I’ve got something worth taking time to listen to.

My message is this: arts & humanities research and policy making can mutually benefit one another, if only conversations between them could be helped to flow more easily.

In academia impact is increasingly important; we need to make our research understandable and its benefits tangible to non-academic audiences. And policy makers could benefit hugely from the expertise a&h research has to offer, on particular issues and especially as policy ideas are initially being developed. This challenge has long been recognised, but the problem lies in working out what to do about it. So that’s the 30 second summary. Still reading?

graphsHere’s the rub. I don’t have any eye-catching graphs or statistics with a wow-factor to present to you. I don’t have a compelling result from a Randomised-Controlled Trial telling you that this intervention is better than that one. Alas, such tools of persuasion are not at my disposal, as I am an arts & humanities researcher, not a social or natural scientist.

The tools of my trade are arguments, expositions and analyses: historical, conceptual, literary and legal, not, as it were, the cold hard facts upon which decisions are supposed to be founded in the drive towards “evidence-based” policy making.

The success of groups such as History and Policy attest to the fact that there is a thirst for arts & humanities academic expertise in Whitehall (the civil service) and Westminster (Parliament and the political parties), but there is frequently frustration on both sides of the academic/policy divide that the other doesn’t understand what it needs, or has to offer. What use is English Literature in formulating foreign policy; who needs history when deciding how to allocate health funds; what use philosophy in pensions reform?

Last week I spent an extremely enjoyable three days at the Institute for Government discussing this problem, with a group of arts & humanities early career researchers, staff from the IfG and a range of excellent speakers, from the civil service, Parliament, think tanks, the communications industry and the ever inspiring LSE Impact group. I will focus on the broadest areas and attempt to practice what I preach: a concise summary of some key insights I gleaned from the course.

Making A&H Research Heard in Policy

1. Disciplinary boundaries can be restrictive but inevitable

In academia we tend to label ourselves with strict disciplinary boundaries and areas of special expertise. In the outside world, these boundaries simply do not mean much. Experts are needed for specific issues at particular times, and these may cross-cut several disciplines. However, as academics we face a tension in knowing how to guide our research. Interdisciplinary research is not well funded or valued: it is still single-authored articles in prestigious (and longstanding) journals confined to tight disciplinary bounds that are accorded most weight for one’s career prospects.

2. Arts & humanities can supply rigorous, rich background and context for issues in public policy.

There is much scope for arts & humanities research to provide historical and conceptual context at the outset of the policy making process, helping to formulate the right kinds of questions and ensuring a broad understanding of the social, cultural, ethical and legal landscape in which a particular policy innovation or idea is being developed. We understand much about the power and form of narratives in shaping discourses: surely a boon to any department or politician facing a critical public?

3. The policy world is complicated- which means there are many avenues for influence

I gained a great insight into the potential ways to contact and communicate with policy just by learning about the structure of the civil service, Parliament, the devolved governments, and the range of government departments. It’s a phenomenally complex system, which is daunting to an outsider but it also means that there are lots of potential roundabout routes to access. Policy making isn’t the rational, coherent, evidence-based ideal it often purports to be! These access routes range from submitting evidence to a Select Committee to starting with local government and community groups, to talking to a think tank, contacting an MP, finding the right civil service contacts or getting involved with a relevant charity or NGO.

4. We have got to understand how to talk to non-academic audiences

A significant part of what we learned at the IfG concerned communication. Not only the media through which we communicate (journals, books, conferences, blogs etc), but also understanding the audience we are aiming at, what messages they’d be interested in and, in particular, how short their attention span for the nuances of academic discourse may be. For the most part, we found that as a group we did largely possess these skills, but they do need honing for a policy audience. We need to ask the questions: why should people listen to me? What difference to decision-making would listening to me make? And perhaps the most useful:

influencing policy“Imagine you’re stuck in a lift with the minister for x (closely aligned with your field). You have 30 seconds before the lift doors open to convince him/her to follow up contact with you on your issue of interest.”

What would you say? I couldn’t get to my point in 90 seconds, let alone 30. Being loud and clear is a matter of practice, and requires us to be open to developing our profile and skills in articulating a message to those we want to reach. Perhaps writing this blog is good training? Next time it’ll be twice as succinct.


Many thanks to the staff at the IfG for their hospitality and the inspiring course they put together. Thanks also to the AHRC for funding the course and for bringing together some seriously interesting people with whom I hope to keep in touch as we develop our ideas around engaging with government.


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