Strategic Thinking for Influence-Seeking

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Influencing policy and decision making can’t be done as an afterthought to research. All too often, impact is treated as an adjunct or follow-up to publication. Yet, our research and interviews resoundingly confirmed the most influential researchers are those who make impact part of their thinking right through the research and development process.

The following sections summarise the big picture issues for scientists and researchers thinking about greater influence over policy and decision making. Part 2 of the Policy influence guideline has more discussion on this topic.

Scientists judge it by the outcome so, if they don’t like the policy outcome, they think they haven’t been listened to. But [policy is] a trade-off and they’re only one part of a trade-off. So that’s often why do they think they haven’t been listened to: they don’t like the outcome … But they generally don’t know enough about the full problem to actually judge the outcome anyway. They just know about their little bit of the problem. (Interview 14, CRCWSC Project A3.3)

Many factors come into play for how or why certain research or researchers can influence a policy process. Many of these factors are largely unrelated to the nature or qualities of the research in question. Across all our interviews and cases studied, policy makers and decision makers rarely identified the method or quality of research as a relevant factor. Unfortunately, simply conducting high quality research is insufficient to ensure influence over a policy or business process. On the contrary, research conducted with no thought for long term influence risks being ignored, and maybe running afoul of larger political and business issues.

The traditional academic model does not incorporate impact into the research design or method. Graduate students are not taught to think strategically about the impact of their research, and universities have relatively little experience in pursuing broader impact. Much of the impact of research is left to chance, which is unlikely to be a successful approach. Yet, even rudimentary thinking and planning can dramatically increase the chance of research having real impact on a decision making process. There is no sure-fire way to be influential, because policy processes and decision making often prompt competition for influence, and many voices (not just the scientist’s) struggle to be heard. But scientists have the advantage of generally being better regarded and trusted by decision makers, and they have greater resources for providing evidence that supports their policy proposals.

Our first recommendation is to plan for influence. Impact should not be the afterthought of a research process; it needs to be a bigger part of project design. It should not be a few generic paragraphs in a project description; it should be an informed discussion that leads to a strategy for influencing how the research is conducted. Researchers need to monitor the environment (not intensively but routinely) to spot opportunities or changes in the policy landscape, so they can respond. Those wanting to produce influential research need to make it the starting point of their work. They also need team members who are responsible for keeping impact and influence part of the team’s mindset throughout the research process.

Additionally, impact and influence must be integral to a scientist’s planning and thinking around a research project for its lifetime. Scientists should generate long term plans for aligning their research with the interests and needs of those intended to use it, yet stay flexible in changing circumstances.

Well I’ve worked on it for years as well and I’ve frequently given talks to scientists as to how do they get their research into policy. But usually it’ll be 20 years of their research boiled down to two lines which I’ve used in a policy, which I think is terrific. But you’ve got to be able to see it. There’s one example in drought management that I think is perfect in terms of that translation of science into policy, but it’s possibly very unsatisfying for the scientists involved. But you go, “See that policy? It takes account of you. Drought refuges. Everything you’ve ever told us. That’s the policy.” But for them it’s 20 years of science and a whole lot of freshwater ecology. It’s not just your little piece of work; it’s everything (Interview 14, CRCWSC Project A3.3).

Expectations of Policy and Decision-Making

Scientists and researchers are trained to invest time in work that focuses on specific expertise and credits individual. Most research projects work intensively on specific problems; they strive for depth of understanding rather than breadth. But the opposite is true of policy, which is broad and attributed at an organisation level (not crediting the individual policy writer). Government or industry policies synthesise a range of perspectives, to find useful compromises that produce an outcome.

Given their different worlds and working styles, scientists and researchers can easily become deflated or disappointed in policy or decision making processes. They may not appreciate the complexity of policy development, the wide range of perspectives and evidence that it must consider, and the political and social pressures that can shape the outcome. Project A3.3 identified (via interviews and case studies) common mismatches in the expectations of researchers and decision makers in the urban water sector:

  • Overemphasising the significance of their own research:  Scientists tend to overemphasise the importance of their work, and to believe in its value, which may not be in proportion to its role in policy development.
  • Difficulty recognising that politics and policy are a process of compromise:  Scientists may misinterpret policy outcomes that don’t emphasise their own interests, research or desired outcomes. When they feel their research findings don’t sufficiently shape a policy, scientists can be quick to conclude that ‘hidden agendas’ or ‘political malfeasance’ has thwarted the public good.
  • Unrealistic expectations of the ease of translating science into policy evidence:  Many scientists assume their research can be easily translated into policy terms. But working with government or business to implement research often requires ongoing direct collaboration and support; it is not a one-time transfer of knowledge.

Any researcher seeking influence in business or government must have realistic expectations of what is possible. They must understand that policy makers and decision makers, compared with researchers, have different goals, interests and limitations. They must also give time and commitment to translate science into the policy realm. The ‘publish and forget’ approach will not work.

Expectations of what constitutes evidence

Scientists also need to better understand what constitutes ‘evidence’ in a decision making context. The nature of their work means researchers place a high premium on exactitude and a stepwise, calculated method for reaching answers. By contrast, policy making is generally not a search for what’s right or perfect (even though policy makers often have such lofty goals), but a search for what works. This mismatch is at the heart of many disagreements and complex relationships between policy makers and scientists. Their fundamentally different missions and philosophies can create unrealistic expectations of what a good outcome will look like for scientists. A senior public servant that we interviewed gave a good summary:

It’s really important to help the scientists think about how they pitch and actually hear what’s important to people and policy-makers. Because, I think I’ve always gone for the 80 per cent solution really. Whether it’s economic theory or the science, it’s about how you can sort of jiggle that into a bunch of expectations that community and stakeholders have for you. In principle, you have to have the evidence behind you, but I think it’s also got to be something which people feel is fair and reasonable and practical. You know, whether it’s a water business they’ll be saying, “Oh heck, I’ve got to run a business here. How can I make this work?” And they love rules of thumb coming from the scientific work. And for a lot of them, often that’s enough. Often that’s enough (Interview 5, CRCWSC Project A3.3).

Such a description may seem highly antagonistic to the world of research, where the 80  per cent solution is not good enough. However, in the time pressured, outcomes focused area of policy development, with many stakeholders and interests jostling for outcomes, an 80 per cent solution is perhaps the best you can get. This expectation is especially relevant as government and business continually adjust their policy settings in response to feedback.

Scientists need to think of policy influence (whether in the public or private sphere) as a process rather than an outcome. They need to manage expectations, and to understand that a good outcome in a policy context looks radically different from a good outcome a research context.

For more information, refer to pages 20-21 of   Policy influence: tactics and strategies for researchers.

Decision making in any policy area, particularly political, is highly complex. Many stakeholders and positions are balanced against each other, and science often represents a critical but small aspect of the total decision. As one senior water utility manager noted:

Well I can, having run these businesses for 18 years, I can tell you that, at the end of the day, science makes up about 10 per cent of the decision-making. I probably haven’t quite got that percentage quite right but the rest of it is politics, personalities, people and, and basically the role of the CEO is to try and determine the right thing to do. You try and base that on some science and then the rest of your role is running the gauntlet of the personalities and the politics… it’s a huge part of the role and it’s naive to think that it’s otherwise (Interview 27, CRCWSC Project A3.3).

From our workshops and interviews, Project A3.3 identified scientists and researchers often have a very limited understanding of how important policies and industry practices are decided, so they are less effective at being influential within those processes. The following core areas of understanding are enormously helpful for researches planning science influence:

  • What instruments are available and which already exist:  A foundation for working with government or business in the urban water sector is to understand the frameworks through which these entities make decisions and operate. Yet, many scientists and researchers in urban water often have a limited grasp of the laws, stakeholders, responsibilities and jurisdictions in the sector. Knowing what various parties in the urban water sector can do, both legally and financially, is vital to directing research to the right players, rather to entities who may not even be able to use it.
  • Understanding stakeholders and potential allies:  When we conducted stakeholder mapping exercises in the A3.3 capacity building projects, relatively few scientists had explicitly engaged in this exercise and had a clear idea of the most relevant players for their issue. But understanding stakeholders, particularly those with whom scientists do not regularly meet (and there are many), has many benefits. Building effective advocacy coalitions for policy outcomes often involves creating alliances across interests in different areas. Advocacy coalitions tend to be more powerful when they are broad rather than deep.
  • Understanding what other stakeholders want:  Critical to being influential is being able to articulate the utility of research in terms that speak to the needs of other stakeholders. This ability requires a contextual understanding of what other stakeholders are seeking. But researchers are often not well connected to broader urban water networks, so they are less aware of the agendas, interests and immediate needs of important stakeholders. Given the speed of change, from social trends to business conditions, staying up-to-date requires monitoring over time.

Scientists need to understand the context in which policy is made in their area. In particular, they need to know the key stakeholders. Science-based arguments that spring from that understanding are likely to carry further.

For more information, refer to pages 22-23 of   Policy influence: tactics and strategies for researchers.

Differing Timelines

Timing is one of the biggest strategic issues in the science–policy nexus. Research and politics occur over completely different timelines, and the mismatch is a major issue when thinking about how science and research can influence policy processes and decision making. A simple analogy is the contrast between a lighthouse and a buoy. Political attention is like a lighthouse: it tends to focus intensely but briefly on a given area. By contrast, academic attention is like a buoy: it shines dimly but evenly in all directions. This difference manifests itself frequently. As a result, good scientific evidence for policy is often produced out of sync with the policy development cycle.

Research is a lengthy exercise, with most research projects at universities and research institutions having timelines measured in years. Often, however, government and business need to solve problems in months, weeks or even days. If researchers cannot produce useful solutions quickly, often government/business will look elsewhere for them. As one Melbourne water utility director commented:

The CRCWSC and Monash is a great initiative and we support it but it’s a very long process for it to deliver, and with the academic process of peer review, publication is looking at very long timeframes. We can’t afford to wait. By that time, you’re going to tell us in two or three years what we should be doing today, you know. So, the contrast for us is that we go to [other institutions] who’ve got the same sort of horsepower, intellectual horsepower but are more focused on implementation, on real, everyday problems. So, we’ve used those extensively (Interviewee 29).

This sentiment is far from unique. Dozens of interviewees (particularly in the private sector but also in government) noted traditional university research programs are usually far too slow to produce results that can influence policy or practice development timelines. Planning for influence, therefore, requires thought about this conundrum and research future proofing. If a research project’s timeline is very long yet the problem being studied is an acute crisis, the government or business will likely need to act before the research is produced.

Opportunity Windows


Some windows are better opportunities than others. At the most basic, non-sector-specific level, a researcher is more likely to influence the policy agenda in certain periods – for example, outside the government’s budget season (annually after the end of the financial year), in the lead-up to elections (when party platforms are being developed), or in the aftermath of government changeovers (when new ministers and government members are looking for ideas). For water policy, the chance to influence depends too on climatic conditions and the news cycle. Many of the greatest changes in water policy (particularly urban water policy) have resulted from droughts or flooding events. These high profile incidents refocus government attention on water policies and the search for policy ideas. High profile media events in water have also come about from water quality, river health, and other environmental events. Although policy can and does change outside these periods, the change is often far more incremental and hard won.

As observed in case studies and interviews, however, scientists are not often ready when opportunities arise, particularly if sudden or unexpected. Research projects are designed to report and respond on their own timeline, yet this strategy does not work if a major decision or government initiative occurs mid-way through the project. The research community must become better at planning for and responding to this type of contingency. If an opportunity opens, scientists should be ready to immediately translate available research, and to provide ideas to government or business. Even tentative or indicative ideas are useful to decision makers in the heat of the moment; they are much more useful than fully formed and developed research that becomes available after all or most the decisions have been made.

For this reason, scientists and researchers who wish to be influencers need to understand the policy development cycle and timeframes. Scientists need to keep abreast of what is happening in policy, much as they would in academic publishing. They need to be mindful of when windows are opening, and when policies are being reviewed (the greatest chance for influence), but also when the opportunity for influence is the lowest.

What’s more, scientists and research organisations need to be ready with answers when an opportunity arises. While a research project may run for three years, what happens if an opportunity to influence pops up after one year? This readiness is a challenge for research organisations particularly, which need to adapt and provide ideas (even if partial or tentative ones) as needed.

For more information, refer to pages 24-26 of   Policy influence: tactics and strategies for researchers.

Building networks between scientists and other actors in the policy sphere is essential for influencing policy and decisions. One of the most influential people in urban water policy in Queensland (as identified by both government and business figures) noted his ability to build networks and work across them:

I’m just inclusively there. And, to be honest, I think back to the reason for that, and it’s because I’ve been able to enter into the different arenas from probably my early Murray-Darling days. Because I got to sit at the table with the ministers, with the senior bureaucrats, with the key stakeholders and I got an inside education about how the system works. Getting an outcome is all about how the system works and what relationships you can build, and seeing possibilities for bringing people and knowledge together. That was invaluable for me, so even if I don’t know people now, you know, I can probably make the calls and get people to the table. (Interview 38).

In each state studied, Project A3.3 identified individuals who were the ‘go to’ scientists for ministers and senior bureaucrats in urban water. These people were not always obvious choices or the most prominent or highly decorated scientists in the field. However, their common denominator tended to be their ability to (a) work effectively within policy processes and political spaces, (b) communicate in a way that is clear and readily understood by non-experts, and (c) set up networks within government, the public service and business. This third quality is part of the strategic planning needed by good scientific voices who want to be influential, for two core reasons:

  1. Information and understanding:   Networks that span the policy space present far more sources of information about emerging opportunities and the needs of others. Scientists and research institutions often lack situational awareness of a government or industry agenda because they are often far less connected to those networks. In particularly, knowing what the government or a business wants to achieve at a given time is critical, because the research community can then work to the agenda and discover opportunities for advancing their research. In the current paradigm, scientists and researchers are encouraged to network with each other. Their interactions are constantly facilitated through research conferences. But there are far fewer regular spaces in which the research community and the policy community interact.
  2. Building trust and credibility:   Trust is a pivotal precursor to influence. A policy space such as water has countless sources of potential advice, interests and ideas. A source’s credibility and trust, therefore, is essential to whether it is heard. Scientists and universities have some of both, but trust in and a pre-existing relationship with a scientist or research organisation is often what leads to cases of real influence in policy or practice decisions. Trust is important because decision makers have a different risk profile than that of scientists and researchers. Whether political or business, decision makers are accountable for their decisions and the impacts that follow. For this reason, scientists and researchers who want to enter this space must establish rapport and a track record. In other words, scientists-cum-influencers have to establish themselves within a policy network long before they wish to advance an aspect of science or research. As a result, a relatively small set of established ‘trusted voices’ in science tend to prevail over a long period, not least in the urban water sector.

Planning for influence means investing in networks and relationships beyond the research sphere and into the policy and political spaces. This investment takes time, and it often requires proactive initiative from scientists and researchers. However, it is an essential long term project, because effective influence hinges on accessing networks’ information on and understanding of government or business needs/actions, and on building a trusted profile.

For more information, refer to pages 27-28 of   Policy influence: tactics and strategies for researchers.

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