The Dos and Don’ts of Influencing Policy: A Systematic Review of Advice to Academics

Oliver, K. & Cairney, P. (2019). The dos and don’ts of influencing policy: A systematic review of advice to academics. Palgrave Communications, 5(21).


Many academics have strong incentives to influence policymaking but may not know where to start. We searched systematically for, and synthesised, the ‘how to’ advice in the academic peer-reviewed and grey literatures. We condense this advice into eight main recommendations: (1) Do high quality research; (2) make your research relevant and readable; (3) understand policy processes; (4) be accessible to policymakers: engage routinely, flexible, and humbly; (5) decide if you want to be an issue advocate or honest broker; (6) build relationships (and ground rules) with policymakers; (7) be ‘entrepreneurial’ or find someone who is; and (8) reflect continuously: should you engage, do you want to, and is it working? This advice seems like common sense. However, it masks major inconsistencies, regarding different beliefs about the nature of the problem to be solved when using this advice. Furthermore, if not accompanied by critical analysis and insights from the peer-reviewed literature, it could provide misleading guidance for people new to this field.

This article starts out with an important but undeveloped concept. “Many academics have strong incentives to influence policymaking, as extrinsic motivation to show the ‘impact’ of their work to funding bodies, or intrinsic motivation to make a difference to policy.” It’s good that the authors didn’t develop it further as this is an area which I am developing further with the always amazing @JulieEBayley (University of Lincoln). Some countries like the UK (“assessment driven”) focus on impact because they are assessed through systems like the Research Excellence Framework. Some countries like Canada (“mission driven”) focus on creating impact because it is the right thing to do for the researcher and his/her institution.

But onto the paper…

Following a systematic review of the literature which identified 2,218 articles, full text screened 269 and included 86 in the final review. Based on the review the authors made the following eight recommendations:

1- Do high quality research

Researchers are advised to conduct high-quality, robust research and provide it in a way that is timely, policy relevant, and easy to understand, but not at the expense of accuracy

2- Make your research relevant and readable

Academics should engage in more effective dissemination, make data public, and provide clear summaries and syntheses of problems and solutions

3- Understand policy processes

Academics are advised to get to know how policy works, and in particular to accept that the normative technocratic ideal of ‘evidence-based’ policymaking does not reflect the political nature of decision-making

4- Be accessible to policymakers: engage routinely, flexible, and humbly

Building and maintaining long-term relationships takes effort, time and commitment

5- Decide if you want to be an issue advocate or honest broker

Reflecting on accessibility should prompt researchers to consider how to draw the line between providing information (an “honest broker”) or recommendations (an “advocate” for a particular position based on the information).

6- Build relationships (and ground rules) with policymakers

Getting to know policymakers better and building longer term networks could give researchers better access to opportunities to shape policy agendas

7- Be ‘entrepreneurial’ or find someone who is

Academics are advised to develop “media-savvy” skills, learn how to “sell the sizzle”, become able to “convince people who think differently that shared action is possible, but also be pragmatic, by identifying real, tangible impacts and delivering them.

8- Reflect continuously: should you engage, do you want to, and is it working?

Academics should be genuinely motivated to take part in policy engagement, seeing it as a valuable exercise in its own right, as opposed to something instrumental to merely improve the stated impact of research

It’s not rocket science, but it is good to see what the literature says and satisfying that the literature says something many of us know intuitively.

But here is something that is missing. Where is the role for knowledge brokers in this space? Knowledge brokers can assist with almost all of these eight recommendations. We can help make research accessible. We can help support relationships between researchers and policy makers. We can help with sizzle, with engagement and with understanding the policy process. While not in all our job descriptions some of us can support high quality research as well.

Questions for brokers:

  1. How would you prioritize these eight recommendations?
  2. What is the difference between recommendation #4 and #6?
  3. Have you ever seen a policy entrepreneur? Take a look at the Impact and Innovation Unit (formerly Innovation Hub) for the Gov’t Canada.

Research Impact Canada (RIC) is producing this journal club series as a way to make evidence on KMb more accessible to knowledge brokers and to create on line discussion about research on knowledge mobilization. It is designed for knowledge brokers and other knowledge mobilization stakeholders. Read this open access article. Then come back to this post and join the journal club by posting your comments.