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Step 2

Identify a policy question

This section will help you connect your research project with a relevant policy question


What is a policy question?

Policy questions come in all shapes and sizes. So do answers drawn from research. Hammering them both into a shape where they connect is a large part of the work of policy engagement.

Policy vs research question

 Research and policy questions don’t differ because researchers and policymakers are interested in different things but because they are interested in the same things for different reasons.

The question in the slider above is a good example of the difference in tone between policy and research questions. Note how the two questions can clearly speak to one another, they just approach the question from different angles. The key issue for policymakers is ‘deliverability’. This needn’t be a focus in research and bridging those two approaches can require a degree of patience on both sides and a willingness to understand the pressures that the other person is facing. Before diving in with an answer, it is worth taking the time to understand why a particular question is being asked.

What do policy professionals want to know?​

The policy community is often looking for expert opinion drawn from a body of work rather than the findings of a given piece of research, which may not map well onto current policy debates.

When setting out to engage with the processes involved in developing, delivering and reviewing policy, it can be tempting to offer up answers drawn directly from research. There is very definitely an interest in, for example, the findings of a related study within the policy world but differences in emphasis and approach between policy questions and research answers can often lead to frustrating mismatches. This means that it can be difficult to take the results of a particular piece of research – or even the collective insights of a body of work – and just fit them in to current policy debates. It is possible to match things up, it just takes time. 

What influences policymaking?

Compared to scholarship, policy can be a messy, iterative process that involves lots of stakeholders and different interest groups.  Although policymakers will have a particular goal in mind, the process of achieving it requires legislators and officials to navigate a complex political, financial, legal and practical terrain. 

Types of knowledge involved in policymaking

Policymakers are interested in lots of different types of knowledge. Academic knowledge is an important ingredient in that mix but the policy takeaway from a particular study or body of work may well not be the academic ‘headline’.
It is also important to remember that there are lots of different elements involved in the processes of developing, enacting, delivering and reviewing policy. Many different types of knowledge and analysis can and do play a role at each stage.

We could easily add other types of knowledge to this list. The policy community uses all sort of knowledge – from the academy and elsewhere – in all sorts of different ways and at all sorts of different stages in the evolution and implementation of policy. The challenge for the researcher is ensuring yours is part of that process by targeting the right question, and getting it into the right hands at the right time.


How do you identify a policy question?

There are plenty of places to look for policy questions. It can be useful to ‘get ahead of the game’ and seek out the questions that policymakers will address in the future rather than those in the news now. The risk in doing so, of course, is that some large unpredictable event blows everything off course – but being subject to events is the price of doing business with policy.

Good sources of information for what questions might interest policymakers in the medium terms would include colleagues in your own and other disciplines, university knowledge exchange and public affairs staff, political institutions such as parties and governments, the media, and external bodies such as NGOs, trades union, think tanks and professional bodies. 

Calls for evidence and parliamentary inquiries
Scottish Parliament
UK Parliament
Welsh Parliament
Northern Ireland Assembly
International institutions

Find out what's on the policy agenda

Being familiar with the ‘live’ issues that relate to your work and may be being discussed in the media is an important part of tracking the policy agenda but it’s a long way from the whole story. By the time policy developments reach the front pages it can sometimes be too late to engage as the formal processes may have been running for some time.

Those formal process are conducted in public, with all of the UK’s governments and parliaments holding inquiries into a huge range of topics on a regular basis. The tabs on each side of this page give brief overviews of how to engage with each institution, and you can sign up for SPRE’s weekly digest of parliamentary and governmental inquiries here

There are also other sources of information that are useful to consider. The manifestoes of political parties, reports and briefings from third sector organisations and lobby groups, the views of professional associations or trade bodies and so on. All of these can offer insights into issues that may become important in policy in the months ahead. 

Programmes for government & inquiries
Scottish Government
Scottish Local Government
UK Government
Welsh Government
Northern Ireland Executive

The Media

‘The media’ is often thought of as a couple of dozen national newspapers and broadcasters but it is really much more varied than that. Following the coverage of issues not just in daily and weekly papers but in more specialist publications such as magazines aimed at particular professions can be a useful way of keeping track of both current events and what is coming down the road.
Many of these publications will also carry analysis of governments’ future plans and the challenges they will face following elections, budgets or other major political events. Engaging with specialist journalists and publications covering, for example, housing or social work can be a good way of working out what will be the next hot topics. University press offices will often have access to a database of all publications in the UK. 

Considerations before engaging with the media

Scotland has its own domestic media and also consumes media produced elsewhere in the UK. Both of these tiers of coverage can provide useful information and some researchers may chose to take that relationship further. 

It is easy to think of working with journalists and other media professionals as being a natural part of engaging with policy. It’s important to stress that it needn’t be but, if this is an approach you want to take, it is useful to do so with open eyes. 

a) All publicity is not, in fact, good publicity

Working with the media can be a good way of highlighting a neglected policy topic or of informing the public at large. It can also be a good way to draw policymakers’ attention to the findings of a particular study or to promote the work of a particular centre.

However, it can also be counterproductive. Once a topic is covered in the media – especially if it is controversial, politicians may have to adopt a position and stick to it. Once your research is in the media, the way it is covered is out of your hands and can quite quickly not be even in the hands of the particular journalist you spoke to.

Sometimes the best policy engagement is done quietly in the background – an email with an audience of one can be a far more effective tool than a news article with an audience of 30,000.

b) Which media outlet works best for you?

 If you decide that engaging with the media is useful (and it should be a decision, not an assumption), then it is worth thinking about which media outlet works for you. Who will be interested in the story? Which group of readers are you trying to reach? It may well be the case that one of the publications mentioned above with a more focussed readership in a particular profession or other interest group may be a good starting point. It may, of course, be that the right approach is to put the story out to as wide an audience as possible but it is worth considering the pros and cons of whether this will help achieve your policy goals before releasing a news story into the wild. 

Talk to experts

Knowledge exchange and research support staff in universities

Different universities will have different structures but most will have someone whose focus is on knowledge exchange and, frequently, this may include someone with an interest in policy engagement. It is one of the oddities of policy engagement as an activity that it often sits on the desk of whoever choses to pick it up rather than being formally part of someone’s job. It can be worth taking the time to find out who this is. Either way, knowledge exchange professionals should be able to point you towards resources and help. They can also be good guides as to how your work can be packaged for a non-academic audience. 

Charities, think tanks and similar organisations

Charities, think tanks and campaigning groups will often have a good sense of the policy agenda and which issues will be appearing over the horizon in the next year or two. Scholars whose research speaks to the interests of a particular profession may also find trade bodies or professional associations are good sources of information.
It is worth bearing in mind that all of these organisations have their own policy goals and you should be aware of these before engaging with them. 

Colleagues within your area of study/academic field

It is worth talking to colleagues within your own field who have worked with policymakers in the past or are doing so now. Academics working on the same topics in other disciplines are also worth seeking out, especially where those are policy-facing fields such as political science, policy studies, law and so on. Some learned societies will also keep a close eye on upcoming policy developments that may be of interest to their field. 

Rather than waiting for a policy question to appear to which a particular piece of your work provides an answer, it can be worth working with colleagues to identify policy challenges that are likely to be prominent within the next 6-18 months to which your research and broader expertise could speak.  

Private companies

Private companies will often have a good sense of policy and regulatory change likely to affect their products, services and sector. There are also professional political monitoring and insight companies, as well as lobbyists and law firms with political analysis or public affairs sections. All of these will be able to offer insights although, in some cases, at a price.

All the links you need to monitor policy developments

Calls for evidence and parliamentary inquiries

Before you leave..