Tactics for Effective Pitches and Decision-Maker Communications

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What do you want to happen as a result of your research or ideas? For a seemingly simple question, answering it succinctly and directly proved the first stumbling block for many scientists participating in our influence workshops.

For a researcher, to work out the best case outcome (be it government policy, industry practice, or otherwise) from their research, they need to understand other interrelated issues:

  • Clear alternatives: Many scientists in our workshop sessions discussed problems identified in research yet were considerably less able to identify what better alternatives to the status quo would look like. Although a grand vision is often attached to the ‘liveable city’, what that looks like in specific cases was often a challenge for our scientists and researchers to articulate.
  • Understanding instruments: Several groups could identify an alternative (to the status quo) that they wished the government or industry to work towards, but they struggled to express the means for achieving it. Workshop participants often had a limited understanding of what government or industry would be able to do. As an example, several workshop groups made policy proposals that involve changes in government legislation and regulation. In practice, however, legislative and regulatory changes are complex processes that are often avoided if the same outcome can be achieved by other means. Moreover, expert panellists found many of the proposed changes could have harmful (if unintended) consequences and would significantly reduce the political chances of the proposal’s success. To articulate what you want to achieve, you need to understand what is within the jurisdiction and realistic capacity of the body to which you’re proposing.
  • Specificity: Expert panellists frequently noted the workshop participants had issues in providing concrete and specific recommendations. Across all areas, scientific researchers are often guarded when making conclusions, and avoid staking controversial positions or ironclad recommendations. But decision makers and policy makers generally work in specifics; for them, generalities and hedged conclusions are much less useful. For this reason, the scientists most influential within policy processes tend to be those who are willing and able to talk on and provide specific recommendations.

Would-be influencers from science backgrounds need to understand the tools and instruments that are available to the decision / policy makers. Plus they need to use their research to justify available action to achieve specific outcomes and alternatives.

For more information, refer to page 30 of   Policy influence: tactics and strategies for researchers.

I’d love a hot dinner for every time I’ve seen somebody say to me, “I’m doing a piece of research into the water industry. I want to find out what’s wrong with X or what are the barriers to Y or … There’d be a gazillion papers that have got the word ‘barrier’ written into them. There wouldn’t be too many that have got the word ‘opportunity’ written in them (Interview 31, Project A3.3).

In most cases, academic research is structured around the     investigation of problems. Yet, government and industry generally engage in the   application of solutions. They are beset by a constant stream of problems that need solving. If a researcher adds to the problem pile, they are hardly going to receive a rapturous reception. But, if they can offer solutions (particularly to problems that government or industry are already facing), then they have a much more positive prospect. The upshot? When approaching government or industry, scientists and researchers seeking to be influential should try to package their research and themselves as problem solving, not problem bringing.

Three rules of thumb for this approach are apparent from interviews and workshops in the water sector:

  • Understand your target’s problems:   The most powerful combination is when a government or industry faces a known and difficult problem, and research provides a workable solution. Alternatively, the researcher understands what a government or business wants to achieve, and then provides a way to do it. Identifying problems or agendas may not be straightforward (which is when strategic efforts such as networking are a chance to understand them). On the other hand, many are relatively straightforward and readily identifiable. Before every election, political parties generate policy platforms and agendas for what they hope to achieve. In addition, when we asked businesses and industry partners about their water related problems, most were relatively forthcoming.
  • Align research with problems:   The lack of synchronisation between research agendas and government/industry agendas bears reviewing here. Put simply, it is much harder to make an influential pitch or proposal if you are working to a schedule or agenda that your target does not share. Across our interviews in three states, few interviewees could identify cases in which a scientist or research institution had successfully changed the agenda or driven major outcomes in areas not under review. Exceptions were research that uncovered problems with serious public or political risk (such as water quality) or that found major unrealised cost savings. Mostly, however, research sector influence was successful when the science aligned with government or industry focus. So, while research projects don’t always need to align from the outset with industry problems, they are more influential when they can be translated and applied to such problems.
  • Work through to solutions:   Many interviewees commented that too much research that crosses their desks does not go far enough into potential solutions to problems identified. Policy makers and decision makers need better information on possible responses to problems. Usually, problems are known but can’t be easily fixed because the feasibility and effectiveness of potential solutions are unknown. Research that can articulate concrete policy options or solve problems is highly valued and often very influential in shaping policy discussions. This type of research is infrequent, however. In addition, even when it is solution oriented, it fails to be sufficiently specific and mindful of limitations and risks.

Influential science and research are much more likely to come in the form of a solution than another problem. Often, research and research institutions have the key components of a solution, but don’t package and translate that information/material into a policy solution.

For more information, refer to pages 31-33 of   Policy influence: tactics and strategies for researchers.

Policy makers are frustrated by how scientists and researchers handle uncertainty and risk. Compared with policy makers, researchers often have far stricter standards when establishing certainty and providing recommendations. This difference occurs because policy makers and decision takers usually have far more constrained timelines and limited resources, which prohibit an exhaustive search for solutions; they must simply come up with the best fit possible within given limitations. As a result, policy makers can become frustrated with research that avoids making definitive conclusions. One senior policy maker in the Victorian water sector described his experience:

We went to [experts on environmental flows] ... Could be this, it could be that they said. So, we got them in a bloody bus. Fed them and showed them a river. Gave them a whole lot of red wine and said, “All right, we’re going to make some rules here. Tomorrow you tell us what you think.” So, it was sort of an expert panel process and we finally managed to pin them down on some specifics. We really had a particular management need for information because riding up bulk entitlements you had to have some view about what the environmental flow regime was… We really pushed for rapid assessment type methodologies, given the amount of information available. The science in that area can be incredibly reductionist and the finer you look at it the more difficult it becomes and more uncertain it is. But you can come up with rules of thumb and those types of things which, from a management point of view, was all we really wanted. We were saying “Give us some rules of thumb and we’ll have a crack. And we’ll see how it goes.” (Interview 5, Project A3.3)

This approach is not standard procedure for securing concrete recommendations from researchers and experts. But it reflects policy makers’ difficulty in getting scientists to recommend ways forward on policy problems. Researchers are not in the business of the ‘rule of thumb’, yet policies often proceed on this basis (and government/industry then finetunes or improves the policy through iterations and greater experience). Policy makers are likely to be far more interested in researchers and scientists who are willing and able to provide recommendations, even if tentative or evolving.

Moreover, a researcher’s argument for change is more powerful if it works to mitigate risks. The promotion of policy transfer, rather than new policy, is an example. If a recommended action would be the first time it was taken, then a decision maker will justifiably be cautious. (A research driven decision that proves wrong will have greater ramifications for the decision maker than for the researcher.) But the decision maker will feel more confident about a policy transfer, knowing other jurisdictions succeeded from making a similar decision or using similar research.

For more information, refer to pages 35-36 of   Policy influence: tactics and strategies for researchers.

Translation and communication are separate concepts in terms of science influence. Translation is the conversion of research into terms that make sense to, and are useful to, other users (such as policy makers). Communication is more about how researchers convey that information. Our government/industry interviewees generally considered translation to be a weak point for most researchers and scientists, while communication was a strong point.

Even when knowledge effectively passes from a research organisation to an external body, there is no guarantee that such knowledge can or will be used. Translation is important, therefore, because it enables research and data to be transformed into policy or practice. While scientists don’t traditionally consider this process, it represents one of the most problematic bottlenecks in the science–policy–practice nexus, because many organisations lack the capacity, time, or expertise for translation. Moreover, some interviewees noted water research organisations overemphasise ideas such as ‘knowledge brokering’: in this case, knowledge may move from one organisation to another, but not be translated or diffused widely enough to affect practice.

Our interviews with policy makers and industry decision makers found two clear issues with translation:

  • Following through:   Research outputs may not have sufficient depth or practical applicability to be useful to those who might want to implement them. Further, scientists may consider others are responsible for implementation, yet there may be insufficient expertise or capacity at the government/business end to adopt the research. What’s more, researchers move onto other projects, and usually do not provide ongoing consultation or support for their previous work. As a result, potential adopters are left on their own. For successful adoption of new findings and techniques, training and translation are needed to put research into practice. As one senior industry figure in Queensland noted:
One of the guys that we’ve got that’s doing the work out with the university just said to me, “Oh it’s really funny. They’ve actually got to do some real engineering” because they sort of backed it up to the door and went “Here’s the science!” And our guys have guys have said “Well what do you want us to do with it? We’ve got to build pipes. We’ve got to construct infrastructure. You can’t just drop the bags up at the door and leave the heavy work to us.” So, you’ve got to think about what is the whole value chain that’s going to take this idea to implementation. And who’s going to be carrying it along the way? Because utilities have a certain amount of capacity to do things but there’s a very strong push for day-to-day operations. So, if you just sort of back it up at the door and go, “There we are. There’s a great idea. How about you run off and implement it?” you’ll get people who are passionate about a particular philosophy who might want to take it up and but most others will go “It’s too much work, it’s not on the list” (Interview 39, Project A3.3).
  • The big picture:   Translation is also about contextualising research and ideas into a broader narrative. It needs to account for the realities of competing interests and pressures. Although scientists usually specialise in niche areas, the decision makers who ultimately use their research do not have such specialisations. Political decision makers may not even be experts in the area at all. So, a major challenge for research in water sensitive urban design is to demonstrate how an issue or area fits not just into the water picture but the overall picture facing government and industry. The piecemeal nature of water research requires translation at some stage to show how the pieces fit together as a realistic resource for policy makers. One Victorian senior bureaucrat noted:
The whole concept of water-sensitive urban design or water-sensitive cities is, is one that makes intuitive sense for a lot of people but there’s so many practical barriers on the ground to getting it done, whether it’s the roles and responsibilities side of things, who’s going to maintain these assets, how do you get them across the line from a cost-benefit analysis point of view, how do you get communities to understand what these are out on the ground and to not go park their cars in them, or get their kids to play in stormwater-harvesting basins, or whatever. I think the roles and responsibilities, who pays and keeping the community engaged in that more sort of decentralised approach to water management are probably some of the big picture questions that need answering. (Interview 7, Project A3.3)

At the political level, research translation may be an even higher level and more challenging task. It may look at considerations far removed from the water sector. At both A3.3 policy development workshops, participating groups were frequently challenged by the expert panellists to contextualise their policy ideas within a much broader basket of government concerns. What value, for example, does government investment in a liveable city have compared with much more tangible demands such as funding for additional hospital beds or schools? How does a water sensitive urban design agenda stack up in terms of costs and benefits against the whole of a government’s responsibilities? These are daunting questions for any researcher. Yet, the most effective policy teams at our workshops were those who could translate their research and ideas into a bigger picture that holds its own against the benefits of other demands.

At the moment, the science and research community does not do enough to translate research into terms and forms that make sense to those who are intended to implement it. But the most powerful route to impact and influence is when research fits into a bigger picture that key decision makers can appreciate and understand.

For more information, refer to pages 37-40 of   Policy influence: tactics and strategies for researchers.

A business case is a subset of translation. It is often the general term for how a proposal translates into economic and financial realities, and it is critical to decision makers at all levels, particularly given the increasing financial constraints on the water sector in recent years. Yet, water research is rarely translated into either economic or financial consequences, despite these consequences being so critical that they can make or break a policy pitch.

Research institutions and projects often have little to no capacity to translate research into economic or financial terms that make sense to industry or government. Participants at our A3.3 capacity building workshops found making a business case the most challenging part of turning research into a persuasive policy proposal. In many large research organisations, a comparatively small number of people work on economic or fiscal issues, if any at all. In contrast, of those the organisations that seem to be influential in translating research into adoption, some have a relatively high number of economists and financial analysts working within the organisation and alongside other water experts and scientists (Interview 44).

Both A3.3 policy workshops shed significant light on considerations for scientists crafting a business case for industry or government:

  • Quantifiability:   The ability to quantify benefits in some way is important in making a persuasive value proposition. Broad, generic statements are common in water sensitive urban design (WSUD), but difficult for policy makers or industry to accept on face value. Several policy makers interviewed commented that WSUD researchers often promise significant benefits but can’t back up their statements with evidence (Interviews 10, 12, 35). So, researchers need to think strategically about research partners who can provide these missing skills. Even a limited investment of time and resources in translating research into quantifiable value terms is likely to yield big dividends in persuasiveness (Interviews 7, 11, 12).
  • Who benefits?   During our workshops, several groups that presented a proposal to expert panellists (playing a state cabinet) used economic research showing values rose for properties in proximity to WSUD assets. They used the research to justify state government spending on WSUD infrastructure. However, the panel explained rising property prices benefit local councils and property owners, not the state government directly. Indeed, rising prices might be a negative, given the housing affordability problems in capital cities. As this example shows, it’s important to consider who benefits from what you’re proposing, and who will own the benefits.
  • Tailoring:   Like the message, the business case should change from target to target. It is critical, therefore, to consider the value proposition from the perspective of a range of potential adoptees. WSUD implementation usually requires partnerships across multiple levels of government and industry, so a general business cause should include benefits for all the potential partners.

For modern policy making in both industry and government, any major decisions and analysis need a solid business case. Research and science that are practical and useful in policy contexts need to acknowledge this need, at least to some degree.

For more information, refer to pages 41-42 of   Policy influence: tactics and strategies for researchers.

How researchers and scientists communicate their ideas and package them for different audiences is crucial to their success or failure in influencing policy. Interviewees from across the board had many ideas for how researchers could communicate better. One minister noted:

I’ve found that scientists are dreadful at putting their work in a sense the we or the community at large can use. One of the positions that I’m actively trying to recruit in my agency is a science communicator. Someone who can take the scientific paper and turn it into something that I can understand easier. I mean I’ve got a science degree so I can read a scientific paper and get to it but I’d love to get to it a lot easier than that. But, more importantly, get it into a form that can be put out to the broader public and say, “Look, you can have confidence this is what the scientists are saying but in a way that you understand it” (Interview 34).

First principle is being able to communicate research in terms that are simple and straightforward. Jargon and overly technical language are problematic for outsiders, and they increase the chance that the decision maker will not understand (or will misunderstand) what is being communicated. Most of our interviewees in policy making or industry found academic papers difficult to read, often unclear in their implications, and loaded with language that is hard for outsiders to interpret. When time and information search are constrained in a policy making context, information that is clear and easy to understand is most valuable and most likely to be used. In other words, researchers cannot rely policy makers or decision takers to have enough expertise to understand traditional academic outputs.

Moreover, academic papers are often structured in a way that makes sense to other researchers and those interested in the procedural elements of the research, but not to those interested in the research implications and conclusions.

For communicating in the most effective way, and delivering research ideas in succinct and manageable forms, several suggestions emerged from our interviews and workshops:

  • Avoid always being an expert:   One interviewee suggested the more of an expert that a person appears (through language or style), the more intimidating and difficult it is for decision makers and policy makers to interact with them successfully. Social and communicative distance between a researcher and an outsider can create relatability problems. Although researchers want to appear competent and knowledgeable, they also need to establish rapport with outsiders and create spaces in which it is okay to ask ‘dumb questions’.
  • Get to the point:   Many workshop groups in our A3.3 capacity building sessions had difficulty in getting to their point succinctly and quickly. Often, researchers make points guardedly and couch them in extensive side commentary or long justifications. As a result, they dilute the power of their message and make key points difficult to discern.
  • Find formats that connect:   The primary means by which academics communicate with each other may not appeal to or work for outsiders. One interviewee noted problems with the format of conferences and seminars, for example. Citing the difficultly of sparing two or three days in a distant city on the off chance of a vaguely described session being of use, this interviewee suggested academic conferences are far from ideal as a way of finding useful research for policy. Peer reviewed papers and other traditional academic outputs are also problematic and often not of great use to policy makers. Concise reports and briefings, lunchtime seminars, and other short-format communications have far more appeal to those outside the academic community.
  • Avoid waffle:   Several interviewees, particularly those in the utility sector, took issue with the broad, flowery language of the WSUD sector. Terms like ‘liveability’ and ‘water sensitive’, although common, are often not well defined when used by researchers. The interviewees preferred language that was unambiguous and real, and removed from broad concepts that mean many things to many people.
  • Train:   Several scientists identified as ‘influencers’ had undergone media and communications training. This training was also a key element of our A3.3 capacity building workshops, and participants indicated it is both useful and important.

The average scientist has good general communication skills, and plenty of exposure to communication practice. However, communicating to a policy maker or political audience is a different proposition: it requires different rules of engagement. Researchers benefit from training in how to span the gaps.

For more information, refer to pages 45-46 of   Policy influence: tactics and strategies for researchers.

Unity is vital among scientists. In numerous interviews, the issue of conflicting research reports and conclusions came up. Interviewees gave examples of when disagreement among research centres and scientists undermined decision maker confidence. Although the research community works and thrives on robust debate and critique, such contestation is not always useful when researchers want to influence the government or industry agenda. Yet, a united front among the research community is rarely coordinated in policy or practice pushes. Scientific conferences on water, for example, rarely assemble to establish a public position on matters.

The few organisations that have looked for unified standpoints in the water sector have been uniquely successful in turning good science into good policy. There are both strategic and tactical benefits from researchers cooperating to establish clear ideas and positions on important issues, and settling key debates before taking the agenda to government or industry. Yet, this approach is rare, even at a small scale. Of the research institutes and units that we visited across all states, many had unclear or inconsistent positions on key issues of public policy in water. This was the case even though most researchers broadly agree on values and outcomes, and disagree on smaller scale issues.

Among policy makers and decision takers seeking clarity and certainty, they look very favourably on unity from the research community. For this reason, would-be influencers from the research sector should seek broader coalitions and consensus as a means to being more persuasive.

For more information, refer to page 36 of   Policy influence: tactics and strategies for researchers.

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