Understanding the policy making process

22 January 2021


Reported by Kate McNeil, CSaP Communications Coordinator

In the autumn of 2020, CSaP brought together early career researchers and civil servants from the Department for Transport (DfT) for a professional development workshop which explored various aspects of the policy making process.

Participants heard from guest speakers including Graham Pendlebury, former Director for Local Transport in the DfT; Dr Natasha McCarthy, Head of Policy at the Royal Society; and the MRC Epidemiology Unit’s Dr Rohit Sharma.

What is the role of science in policymaking?

According to Graham Pendlebury, policy making has three core elements: analysis and the use of evidence; the world of politics and democracy; and the realities of how your policy will be delivered and implemented. At the analysis and evidence stage, he suggested that policymaking involves interdisciplinarity, and the synthesizing of evidence from a wide range of experts including economists, statisticians, data sciences, social researchers, communications experts, lawyers, and those in traditional scientific disciplines. The evidence and analysis stage also involves foresight and horizon scanning, and successful policymakers need strong relationships with their scientific advisors and access to networks of expertise from academia, national academies, industry and elsewhere.

Mr Pendlebury emphasised that successful policymaking involves asking sophisticated questions, seeking a wide range of views, and understanding the limitations of the evidence that science and technology can provide. He also notes the importance of speaking to experts who feel confident speaking truth to power. Expert advice needs to be honest, and policymakers need to know that data is being deployed and interpreted correctly and in a way that experts believe to be robust. He noted that the use of evidence can get complicated very quickly, highlighting that policymakers also need to look at political and parliamentary perspectives, and to understand both the state of public opinion and who will be impacted adversely by the proposed policy. Ultimately, he suggests that we need to understand the exact nature of the problem, then formulate and frame policy solutions in ways which are scientifically feasible, politically and ethically acceptable, and which can be delivered on the ground.

What role do the learned societies play in policymaking?

There are a range of groups which act as stakeholders in the policymaking process. This includes state actors and international institutions, private sector stakeholders such as trade bodies, civil society groups, and professional institutions such as the learned societies. With this in mind, we took a deeper dive into how one type of organisation, the learned societies, contributes to shaping policy in government and beyond.

The National Academies are comprised of elected bodies of expert researchers and practitioners. These academies represent the whole of the UK and also have international members. Within the UK, there are also other academies such as the Royal Society of Edinburgh which, alongside of the national bodies, contribute to a whole constellation of learners, societies, and expert bodies working across a variety of specific fields. These organisations share best practice in their own areas, make sure that the interests of their own disciplines and sectors are understood by policymakers, and are involved in thinking about how their work can benefit society. The academies also take part in the art of convening, facilitating productive conservations between policymakers and academics with the goal of forging positive relationships and making knowledge accessible. Alongside this work, they also engage in large-scale evidence synthesis, making high-level scientific research accessible to a broad audience of policy makers and the public.

Questions in the Policymaking Process

Closing the panel session, the MRC Epidemiology Unit’s Dr Rohit Sharma raised a series of questions which those involved in policy making processes might consider when undertaking a policy appraisal process or seeking to arrive at a single preferred option within the array of policy choices available. Questions included:

  • What is the existing context?
  • What challenges have been identified? Can these challenges be mapped against existing policies?
  • What are the objectives we are setting out in addressing these challenges?
  • How do we identify and assess options to address those challenges?
  • Have we identified all possible options, and if so, what approach will be taken to sift through and eliminate options?
  • Which possible interventions align with existing policies?
  • Which intervention could solve the problem as soon as possible?
  • Who are the key stakeholders in this issue?
  • What would be the social and distribution impact of your possible solutions?
  • What is the business case for the proposed solution? Where is the funding and financing coming from?
  • Is the proposed solution deliverable? Will it have social benefits?
  • What are the future uncertainties? How will people behave in the future? Will this impact how they interact with your proposed solution?
  • How robust is our appraisal process?

CSaP's professional development workshops are designed to demonstrate, through worked examples, the value of building links between evidence, expertise and policy making; to create networking opportunities between researchers and policy professionals; and to share and inspire good practice for evidence-informed policy making. Learn more here.