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Sarah Weakley

David Waite

February 15th, 2024

Context, Agency, Authority and Power – Key considerations for early career researchers engaging with local policy

0 comments | 9 shares

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Sarah Weakley

David Waite

February 15th, 2024

Context, Agency, Authority and Power – Key considerations for early career researchers engaging with local policy

0 comments | 9 shares

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Policy engagement is often described in terms that are universal and without specificity to the individuals undertaking this kind of research. Sarah Weakley and David Waite argue that for early career researchers, taking into account positionality is vital to having realistic expectations of policy impact at the local level.


There is an increasing onus on researchers at all levels to achieve impact beyond academia, especially in policy and practice. To fully understand how policy impact can be achieved, it’s important to better understand who exactly is doing this work. One group that is regularly overlooked in the ‘how to’ literature is early career researchers (ECRs).

To fully understand how policy impact can be achieved, it’s important to better understand who exactly is doing this work

Here we focus particularly on ECR engagement with policy actors at the local or regional level. We found policy actors here to be particularly receptive to new researchers and collaborations to supplement existing (often hollowed out) policy departments. In some ways there were fewer barriers to entry and more informal pathways to initial engagements. To investigate what happens in these local policy arenas we chose to look inward, through autoethnography, and by doing so we were able to trace the structural dynamics that shaped our experience. This includes: how the policy context and its actors shaped what role we played in the engagement; how that context impacted our agency; and the power dynamics at play.

Policy engagement as an early career researcher

While there is a wealth of ‘how to’ literature for academics working between the worlds of evidence and policy, and accounts of the experience of individual researchers, there is less empirical evidence on the structural factors that influence how these individuals can and do engage with policy. Career trajectory, along with a variety of other structural factors such as, socioeconomic status, gender and race, influence how and why academics engage in policy spaces.

Early career academics as knowledge producers and brokers in policy spaces are notably absent from both empirical and ‘how to’ literatures (with the exception of Evans and Cvitanovic). This absence of the ECR experience from the discussion risks producing a literature that assumes equal access to power in policy spaces and equal opportunities to engage in the long-term work of relationship building with policy actors without career costs. It ultimately leaves today’s ECRs to ‘fight the same battles and learn the same lessons over again’ relating to policy impact.

Context and Agency

The context of the local policy groups, their remit, structure, and origins, were all found to impact our agency as ECRs to propose new ways of thinking, recommendations and evidence to be considered in the group for action. One of our cases was a local social recovery taskforce, set up in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. It was an emergent group with a relatively informal leadership structure, over thirty different members from primarily the public and voluntary sectors, and twelve different workstreams. This context made it possible for new ideas to emerge and for the ECR to have more agency than we might normally expect, as nearly all evidence on the impacts of the crisis and potential solutions were welcome. Although this context was unique, it highlights the need to understand the leadership structure of the group and its formality, either before, or early on in the engagement, to understand what might realistically be achieved.

for ECRs, the channels to policymakers are not always straightforward and organisational requirements can shape how and through what means policy audiences are reached.

In our second case, the ECR worked as a knowledge producer supporting an independent advisory group on socioeconomic change that in turn reported to a policy body. Sometimes the researcher would present research and evidence to the local body directly, but for the most part, the advisory group, who the researcher was tasked to support, was the primary audience. This brought up issues related to how work was then represented to the policy body and on what terms. The agency of the researcher to put forward a critical or charismatic idea in this context was often mediated by those in the advisory group. Coupled with the observation that different approaches to pitching evidence to policy audiences may be in place, with some members of the advisory group leaning toward consensus over criticism, and vice versa, a multi-faceted relationship context confronted the researcher. This shows that for ECRs, the channels to policymakers are not always straightforward and organisational requirements can shape how and through what means policy audiences are reached.

Authority and Power

A common challenge for early career researchers in policy engagement is how to demonstrate credibility when you are less well established. Much of the initial work in the social recovery taskforce was concerned with demonstrating value first as a producer of knowledge and then more prominently as a broker, coordinating other academic inputs to meet the needs of policy groups. Both of these roles were approached relationally, and the informality of the taskforce and direct lines of communication between the author and the group leadership enabled this credibility-building work to be done relatively quickly through personal communications and meetings. However, for many ECRs their positionality (that is, lack of existing status) may be a larger barrier to engagement and may therefore need to rely on other academic ‘gatekeepers’ to work in these spaces effectively.

In the case of socioeconomic development advisory group, the question of who had the power and how it was wielded to the local policy group is interesting to consider. The power of the advisory group in this case, and perhaps other types of interlocutory roles, may also reflect the symbolic nature of the advice. That is, the advisory group was comprised of senior individuals who had a strong public standing within the local context. This raises the issue of whether it was simply the knowledge per se that was valuable in the local context, something that an ECR would be able to contribute to or have power to change, or whether it was who was carrying the knowledge that carried weight in the engagement. We need to consider the instrumental interests of local policymakers, who may gain leverage and credibility among other policy partners by associating with certain knowledge sources.

Both cases demonstrated here that it’s particularly valuable to understand who is listened to, and for what reason. If there are a few ‘trusted’ voices in the space, how might you be able to connect with those researchers or authorities?

So, if you are an ECR who wants to engage in local policy spaces, or at the beginning stages of your engagement, we think it’s useful to ask yourself a few questions based on our experience.

Your expertise:

  • How does your area of expertise fit in with the aims and direction of the group? Why should you be in the conversation?
  • Where is the group’s evidence coming from now? (And where do you think it can be broadened?)

The context

  • What does the leadership structure look like?
  • How long as this group been operating and might they be open to new ideas, insights, and voices?
  • How does your area of expertise fit in with the aims and direction of the group? Why should you be in the conversation?
  • Who is listened to in the space now? Who are the ‘key players’ in terms of the academics that are listened to in this policy space now? Do you have or can you make a connection with them as a mentor or collaborator?

 

 


This blog draws on the authors’ article, Academic knowledge brokering in local policy spaces: negotiating and implementing dynamic idea types, published in Evidence & Policy. 

The content generated on this blog is for information purposes only. This Article gives the views and opinions of the authors and does not reflect the views and opinions of the Impact of Social Science blog (the blog), nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

Image Credit: Jonny Gios via Unsplash. 


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About the author

Sarah Weakley

Sarah Weakley is a Research and Knowledge Exchange Lead at the University of Glasgow’s College of Social Sciences. She is advises researchers on all aspects of their knowledge exchange and impact activity, with a particular focus on brokering and supporting academic-policy engagement. Her research background is in poverty and social policy in the US and the UK.

David Waite

David Waite is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Glasgow. David’s research focuses on the development of second-tier city-regions, and he has public policy experience from Wales, Scotland and New Zealand.

Posted In: Early career researchers | Evidence for Policy | Featured

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