Evidence-Based Policy Making: Official Policy Perspectives on Creating and Sustaining Effective Links Between Academic and Policy Worlds

Jenny van der Arend

Jenny van der Arend is a Ph.D candidate enrolled through the School of Political Science and international Studies/Institute for Social Science Research, University of Queensland

There has been an increasing interest in evidence-based policy and practice across a broad range of health and social policy areas in Australia and abroad.  This emphasis is underpinned by the belief that social research has a role to play in “good”, strategic policy making and practice. 

In his recent post on this blog (16 June 2015), Professor Mark Evans outlined the perspectives of a sample of Westminster policy officers on the impact of evidence in contested policy environments.  In doing so he highlighted that, although these officers considered there was a need for greater strategic policy capability in the public service, there are key conceptual, environmental and institutional barriers that need to be overcome.

The development and maintenance of strong linkages between academic researchers, policy makers and practitioners have long been considered a key strategy for the more effective use of research in policy and practice.  These linkages, which typically refer to relationships or networks that enable discussion and exchange, and sometimes joint research efforts, are thought to act as bridges between research and policy and practice worlds.  They are also considered to help in breaking down the barriers that prevent research being produced, jointly owned and effectively shared.

This blog post outlines some key findings of my PhD research project, which aims to explore the role and relevance of linkages between academic researchers and social policy officials in supporting research use.  My research draws on data gathered via a large scale ARC Linkages-funded research project undertaken by the University of Queensland’s Institute for Social Science Research (ISSR).  The data collection targeted public servants in Australian federal and state departments undertaking a range of policy roles – 2,084 of these policy officials completed surveys and semi-structured interviews were undertaken with 100 social policy officials. Analysis of this data has led to insights concerning the significance and functions of linkages in supporting research use, and the barriers and facilitators to forming and sustaining effective linkages.

I found that linkages support research use in policy contexts in a number of ways – including by creating access to research products, supporting the “translation” or application of research products to policy issues, underpinning the joint production of research and creating capacity-building opportunities.

A multilinear regression analysis of survey data exploring the link between relationships and research impact revealed that a number of linkage-related variables do significantly predict research impact, providing some empirical evidence that linkages can and do influence research use in policy-making. 

Actual interactions between policy officials and academics and/or brokers of academic research were significant predictors of research use.  However, more relationships will not necessarily mean more research impact – policy officials report that networks need to be strategic and nurtured, as longer-term relationships were considered to be much more effective for supporting research use.  Sustained relationships enable trust and common ground to be built.  Elements of this “common ground” include shared understandings of both research and policy processes and a joint commitment to the effective use of research to assist in understanding and addressing policy issues.  Sustained relationships also help to create capacity for forward thinking, and to enable policy and practice opportunities to be identified and acted upon as they arise.

“Good networks produce solid work…forming relationships takes time.”

“What became obvious is with every success, more research is demanded.  We were looking at greater sources of information to stitch together.”

“I guess if I’m thinking of a long term policy agenda the evidence may show one thing but, for a whole range of reasons, it’s not practical, pragmatic for government policy to adopt that.  That doesn’t mean it’s wrong, it just means now’s not the right time. Over an eight year period if you had that relationship you can always come back to things…”

Several important facilitators of and barriers to linkages could be identified via the survey and interview data. 

Most often cited, and a variable that predicts research impact of itself, is the degree to which an organisational environment values and has a culture of supporting staff to use academically produced research.   Analysis of the interview data suggested that the degree to which research is valued within policy contexts can both shape the character of linkages (i.e. whether and how they are pursued), as well as be shaped by these relationships.  “Valuing” research can assist in building research relationships in the first instance, but “successful” research relationships can and do play a role in building demand for research.  Clearly, one of the key challenges for creating evidence-based policy capability in public service agencies lies in first building an organisational culture that values and supports research use as an important component of delivering on policy functions.

Finally, linkages between policy officials and academic producers/brokers of research often grow from existing relationships and networks.  Existing connections – both informal and formal - make identifying other potentially helpful linkages (e.g. relationships with other research producers/brokers; involvement in broader structured networks; the creation of more formal/institutionally supported partnerships) more straight forward for busy policy officials.   A pre-existing relationship can also mean that a level of trust, which is often required to work together around sensitive policy issues, will already exist between policy official and research partner. 

“I think if people are confident with the institution and the researcher’s ability to understand the issues, that’s really important.  Whether we like it or not, it’s about your relationships - if you feel you can work with people and who you know – that gives you a level of confidence to work with people.”

My research findings around the policy official perspectives contained in this blog post are outlined more fully in the recently published article, “Bridging the research/policy gap: policy officials’ perspectives on the barriers and facilitators to effective links between academic and policy worlds” in Policy Studies (December 2014).


Further information on the broader ARC linkage-funded project (“The Utilisation of Social Science Research in Policy Development and Program Review” - LP100100380) and papers detailing findings to date can be found on the ISSR’s website at: http://www.issr.uq.edu.au/EBP-home

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