Policy makers are increasingly drawing on knowledge outside the public service to deal with the complexity of public policy. Academic research is one source of external expertise that can contribute to robust policy development. However there are significant barriers to meaningful knowledge exchange.
A project between academics and a policy group in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) set out to address these barriers and strengthen engagement.
At a glance
In a paper for the Australian Journal of Public Administration, Annette Quayle (Queensland University of Technology) and Bernadette Kelly (PM&C) outline a project to encourage knowledge sharing between academics and policy makers and overcome the barriers to knowledge exchange. The use of an informal knowledge sharing framework helped the exchange of information between researchers and public servants and addressed the barriers.
What are the barriers to knowledge exchange?
From the policy maker’s viewpoint, barriers include:
- differences in the validity and timeliness of information
- confidentiality issues
- limited resources to find relevant sources
- the time needed to develop links with non‐government experts such as academics.
The barriers from the academic perspective include:
- a reluctance to engage due to concerns of maintaining academic independence
- the political nature of policy decision making
- frustrations derived from previous poor experiences
- a lack of meaningful impact.
The role of academic research in the policy process
The public policy process is messy and non‐linear, spanning agenda setting, policy formulation, analysis, implementation and evaluation. Its complexity demands new policy skills and the need for impartial, evidence‐based advice. Academic research is one source of evidence for policy making but policy makers and academics need to find ways to build more constructive relationships and opportunities for knowledge sharing.
Academics’ contributions to policy can often be a one‐way process through submissions to government committees, research policy forums or published journal articles. This approach:
- may not address issues on the policy agenda
- doesn’t take into account the time needed for policy makers to find and access evidence, especially when decisions must be made quickly.
An early career academic with an interest in policy making was seconded to the communications policy team in PM&C’s Industry, Infrastructure and Environment Division. The aim was to assist the policy team find ways of engaging with academics and their work.
The project involved three phases:
- Developing an understanding of the key policy issues emerging across the communication portfolio.
- Finding academics who could provide perspectives on these issues.
- Determining what kind of engagement framework would enable frank and confidential conversations.
Engaging researchers in knowledge exchange
The development of the engagement framework was the most complex part of the project. There were three barriers in reaching out to academics.
1 What’s in it for the academics?
PM&C queried what academics would gain and why they would want to be involved, especially in light of confidentiality. Having an academic on secondment meant advice could be provided on the potential benefits of knowledge sharing.
- A shift in the higher education policy settings has seen an increased focus on engagement and impact of academic research.
- Universities are now being assessed on how their research translates to economic and social benefits and also on their collaborations with industries, government and other end‐users of this research.
- These changes are providing strong external motivations for academics to develop closer relationships with policy makers and enhance the relevance of their research.
As PM&C deals with sensitive policy issues and cabinet confidentiality, the framework needed to allow frank discussions and also meet strict security requirements. This was addressed through a confidentiality agreement.
3 Short time frames
Many of the policy issues for PM&C are urgent and the time frames for feedback condensed. The PM&C policy team leader spent time with the academics to convey:
- the reality of policy making
- the benefits of communicating ideas in short and sharp chunks
- the need for advice at short notice.
Why it matters
The project is a practical example of improving the engagement between policy makers and academics. It shows that brokers who can navigate the policy research divide have a critical role to play whether the brokers are from the academy (the early career researcher on secondment) or the world of practice (the policy team leader). It also demonstrates it is possible to overcome the barriers to building closer knowledge sharing relationships but this requires effort from both academics and policy makers.
Want to read more?
Building informal knowledge‐sharing relationships between policy makers and academics: Insights from a PM&C engagement project – Annette Quayle and Bernadette Kelly, Australian Journal of Public Administration, 20 February 2019
Building a knowledge‐sharing system: Innovation, replication, co‐production and trust – A response – Helen Sullivan, Australian Journal of Public Administration, 20 February 2019
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