Practical considerations for communicating evidence to decision makers
What stage of the policy process are you trying to influence?
One of the key barriers for policy makers to consider research in their decision making is that research outputs are not aligned with the policy-making process.
You need to identify the point in the policy process that you are trying to influence and consider the specific timeline during which key decisions will be made. As policy makers often have many competing priorities, make sure the purpose of your policy brief is clear and that it addresses a specific issue that they are currently facing. This requires regular engagement with policy makers to find out about the decisions they are making and their timelines, and then producing analysis to meet their needs.
What decision am I trying to influence? When will decisions be made? When is evidence most likely to be used in this process?*****
Now you know what policy decision you are trying to influence and the timeline for action, can you clearly define the problem you are trying to address and identify who you are trying to influence?
Being clear about the problem your analysis is addressing and knowing its intended audience saves the reader precious time. Policy makers need to quickly understand the challenge or problem. Framing problems in terms of practical considerations, such as the costs of action or inaction, can be effective.
Think about how you are describing the problem – can you summarise what the problem is in two sentences? What are the costs of inaction? What are the consequences of action?
Different people will have different data needs. Are you trying to reach a generalist working at the national level? Or someone with specialist technical knowledge who will want more detail? Will this person be interested in sub-national data, for example, about their region or constituency? Make sure the evidence you include speaks to the interests of your audience.
Now that you have identified the specific policy need, the main audience, and clarified the problem, how will you capture people’s attention?*****
Develop “sticky” messages
One of the best ways to do this is through information that is new, unexpected, surprising or different. This will engage the reader and make the message something that is more likely to be shared.*****
Remember that public policies are ultimately about bringing positive change to people’s lives, so stories are a good way to connect with policy makers. Can you include a story that shows the human side of the data or evidence included in the analysis? Is there a way to demonstrate how people’s lives will be positively affected by a suggested policy?*****
Assembling the evidence jigsaw
A single study or piece of evidence is unlikely to have a policy impact. However, researchers can play an important role bringing together various pieces of evidence in support of a particular policy.
You have managed to catch the attention of a busy policy maker, but what they really want to know is what can be done about this problem. Have you presented clear, actionable recommendations? Policy makers are often overwhelmed by large amounts of data and information. You must be able to take the complex and nuanced findings of your research and turn them into clear, actionable recommendations that are concise and memorable. If the recommendations are too complex, they will often be over-simplified.
Design simple messages which are unlikely to be over-simplified
If you include lots of warnings in your messages, these are often likely to be overlooked. Writing a message like “this will require a three part strategy…” reduces the likelihood that messages are oversimplified rather than adding caveats at the end.
Are the methods clear?
Providing a (short) list of sources of information and publications that were drawn upon in the analysis can be helpful. However, giving a detailed description of the methods is neither helpful nor necessary. As one study found: “researchers are preoccupied with controlling for bias, but the [policy makers] aren’t interested in the details, they just want to know what works”. You need to be clear about where your data is from, but you do not need to explain the methods in detail.
Is the policy brief clear about where the evidence was drawn from? Is it from a single study or a synthesis of studies?*****
Have you established your credibility?
Policy makers pay attention to who produces a policy brief. Establishing the credibility of your organisation over a long period is much more important than a specific piece of research.
Design and presentation are important, and influence credibility. Policy briefs need to be clearly written, easy to follow and attractively designed. Dense, disorganised text which is hard to follow will not be read. Good design is important, so make use of headings, subheadings and lists to guide readers to the key points and make the information easy to find and read. Creating an attractive design is also important for building credibility.*****
Keep it short, with key messages highlighted
Policy briefs should be no more than 1500 words and some argue that all your key points should be on the first page. For some types of complex information, in might be necessary to disseminate a longer, more technical report. However, this should be provided with a 1 page document with the key messages followed by a summary or policy brief, and finally the full report. This offers readers multiple formats, depending on their time, interest and expertise.*****
Avoid jargon; use plain language
Can your brief can be easily understood by an educated person without a technical background in the subject?*****
Avoid too much detail
Statistics such as P-values or unnecessary figures are best left out of a policy brief as they can cause confusion and detract from your overall message. One researcher who was sharing findings with policy makers recounted that “during the meeting, I had one of the policy makers next to me ask, what does “n” stand for?”*****
Is it in the correct language for the target audience?
In some contexts, people’s knowledge of English, especially at the sub-national level, will be limited. Make sure that documents are accessible to the audience you are trying to reach, so are translated correctly.*****
Would your message be clear in an image?
Use simple illustrations that can talk by themselves and convey a message at a glance.
How will you get your findings into the hands of policy makers?
A plan for communicating research is needed and should begin at the start of a project, rather than waiting until the end to share findings.
Have you developed a plan for engaging with policy makers throughout the research process? What methods will you use?*****
Have you chosen the correct messenger?
Who is best placed to share your findings? Is there a specific organisation whose opinion is valued or has the ear of the government? Sometimes it is more effective to find a supportive policy maker in government who can also promote evidence from within. Can you work with them to share the findings of analysis? Also, remember that policy products represent a type of participation and power. It is important that the role of the person or organisation producing the brief is accurately represented.