Research impact in government – three crucial elements you will need for success
Updated: Mar 26
[Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared at Integration and Implementation Insights and is cross-posted here with the corresponding authorization of the initiative’s administrator.]
What is the less visible ‘stuff’ that helps (or hinders) the uptake of research findings into government policy?
As a researcher it can be frustrating to have a great idea, connected to a seemingly important need, and even good networks, and yet still not be able to help your research have impact in the daily life of the relevant public sector decision-makers.
From more than 20 years of being involved in and with the senior decision-making levels of public sector environment agencies and running a business all about increasing the impact of science into public sector decision-making, I offer three insights that you should look for to see if the time and place are right for the uptake of your research. If these three elements exist, your research stands a good chance for uptake.
1. Look for the true priorities
As Mahatma Gandhi is claimed to have said “action expresses priorities”. Whether Gandhi really said this or not, it neatly sums up the reality of investment and priorities in the public sector. Despite the clearest annual and strategic plans, the day to day reality of the public sector is that priorities, rightly, shift. They shift based on new knowledge, new or different investment requirements, crises and, appropriately, according to the current politics. I say “appropriately” as I happen to believe in the sometimes-quaint notion that as we vote in our politicians, democracy means they have a say in priorities.
Knowing the above can help you. The best advice is not to look at what is online, or publicly stated to be the current priorities. Rather look at what the people in the public sector organisation are doing. What are they working on? What are they not working on? Where is the energy and effort going? Action expresses priorities. If your idea is not a current priority, or something that looks to be emerging as a priority, now is simply not the time to bring it forward.
2. Find the right people
During my time as a public servant, very smart and innovative people used to come to my office with excellent ideas that were not in my area, or in some cases not even my organisation. I tried as hard as I could to connect them to the right decision makers, but often it was not easy.
There is an onus on researchers to do some leg-work and find the right people. The right person may be defined simply as being in the right area. However, in public sector agencies the right people are also defined as those who are internally well-networked, internally well respected, innovative and in the right decision-making layer or location that fits with your research. It does mean having relationships across (and up and down) organisations so that you can build a strong link to a number of “right” people.
The wonderful secondary outcome of finding the right people, and listening to them, is that you will learn things about your research and the impact it can have that you did not conceive. And the right people will help make that impact happen.
3. Culture eats strategy for breakfast
This famous quotation by Peter Drucker was often cited by my Chair when I worked at the Victorian Environment Protection Authority. She helped me understand that while you can have the best possible strategy and vision for an organisation, it will not achieve all that it can unless the culture is right. Organisational culture is everything. It is the lifeblood of what motivates us at work, what helps us get out of bed every day, and what enables us to unlock our discretionary capacity in the workplace, which leads us to work more than what is required, and with increased creativity. When it is poor or flawed it leads to appalling decision-making by people able to hide behind the poor organisational culture.
So, what does culture have to do with getting impact out of your research? I have seen cultures across federal and state public sector agencies that are not conducive for getting uptake of new ideas, innovations or research. Often these cultures are deeply risk averse, passively aggressive, competitive or quite defensive. The cultures may be strongly reliant on following the rule books for the sake of it, rather than to achieve an outcome. You will feel it almost immediately when you try to engage with such a culture. Unfortunately for you, and your great research finding or idea, these cultures do not see the benefit of uptake of your research findings, nor do they wish to invest in you or your ideas without first going through such a tortured process that any sane cost-benefit analysis would stop you on day one.
On the upside, look for the public sector cultures focused on achieving something, those who use a strong culture of constructive feedback and accountability while actively supporting their staff to be and do better. These cultures exist and will openly work with you to get what impact can be had from your research. Don’t be put off. They are strong and self-confident cultures and the people there will not shrink from telling you frankly if they do not see a place for your idea. Importantly for you, you will know that the people living in these cultures will have worked hard and constructively to come to that decision.
When you find that your research is not getting picked up in the public sector, do look at the traditional elements of funding cycles, alignment and relevance, but also look for the three elements described above that are often less visible. Look around and check if you fit to a genuine priority, have found the right people and, most of all, if the culture of the organisation is open to embedding new research findings. In fact, save yourself some time, look for these three elements first and if you don’t find them, it tells you that that is not the place, and this is not the time, for your research to have an impact. However, do continue looking as there are excellent people in great public sector organisations crying out for good research that can influence their policy, regulatory and/or operational activities.
Do you have any experiences to share based on the elements described above? These lessons are drawn from experience in Australia, how well do they resonate with those of you living elsewhere?
Biography: Anthony Boxshall is the Founder and Principal of Science into Action, a science impact practice focusing on growing public value by getting more out of science and research. He is an experienced executive and board level scientific leader, and a qualified board director. He is a marine ecologist by trade, and a current Melbourne Enterprise Fellow – Integrative Environmental Research, at the University of Melbourne. His growing research areas include environmental impacts, coastal adaptation to climate change, citizen science and integrating research into practice.