Pitfalls and promise: A relational approach for connecting with policy makers



TYPE Prevention Centre News

Professor Marc Stears, University of Sydney, was the keynote speaker at the Prevention Centre’s Research Network meeting in October. He discussed how a ‘relational approach’ can help researchers connect effectively with policy makers.

Keynote speaker Professor Marc Stears, Director of the Sydney Policy Lab, University of Sydney, shared how a ‘relational approach’ has the potential to help researchers connect effectively with policy makers.

“Rather than focusing on an ‘I-it’ relationship – a data-driven, scientific and evidence-based approach to the world – it was more useful to focus on an ‘I-you’ relationship – a connection through the strength of emotion and character, when the world is felt rather than understood,” Professor Stears said.

Professor Stears has more than 20 years of experience in research translation and has worked with governments and some of the world’s leading organisations including the New Economics Foundation think tank, and as Chief Speechwriter to the UK Labour Party.

“If you are trying to influence a policy maker, get them involved in a project with you, get them excited by an idea you have,” he said. 

“Overcome the tendency to package ideas purely in terms of science and data, and instead commit to making connections that are humane, emotional and based on disposition of character,” he said.

The power of relationships

Associate Professor Sarah Thackway, Executive Director of Epidemiology and Evidence, NSW Ministry of Health, told the Research Network that to influence policy, research needed to be meaningful for those working within a health system.

“Researchers who have been most influential in informing NSW Health’s COVID response are those who had pre-existing relationships with policy partners, who offered to respond to the government’s immediate needs, and who understood the pressures facing policy makers,” said Associate Professor Thackway

Associate Professor Thackway also spoke of the importance to NSW of long-term strategic investment in research that can pivot to newly emerging issues like COVID.

“Do we have the right workforce, budget and political will? These are all considerations we have to think about when we’re looking at new policies,” she said.

Common pitfalls to overcome or avoid

Professor Stears said academic culture often led to common pitfalls in influencing policy, including:

  • Grandiosity: Some researchers are excessively optimistic about what their research can change. This can hinder engagement with policy makers who want practical, realistic, and implementable solutions.  
  • Focus on detail: Policy makers do not need to know every technical aspect, they need to see the bigger picture.
  • CV-itis: Researchers’ CVs, credentials and collaborations are only of interest to grant funding bodies, but have little relevance to policy partners; trust is more likely to be built in you as a person rather than in your academic track record.  
  • Excessive modesty: Policy makers don’t need to know the limitations in your work, they need to know what problems you can answer for them.

How to craft a connection with policy makers

Professor Stears said the central question for researchers to ask themselves before starting the engagement process was: ‘What do you want to change in the world?’

“Think about how your findings can have a compelling impact, and, through this lens, ask yourself ‘How am I going to enable that change to influence policy and policy makers?’

“To build a connection with policy makers, it is necessary to make those you’re speaking to feel as though they are in a strong relationship with you – to give them a sense of deep connection,” he said.

He suggested three ways of doing this:

  1. Share your personal narrative: Your back story and commitment to the issue is more persuasive than the argument alone. Why should they trust you?
  2. Share your mission: Why does your research matter? Connect with the policy maker around your values rather than the detail. 
  3. Use everyday language: Compelling stories trump technical details – ground your language in everyday life, rather than hiding behind jargon or overly technical language.