Opinion: how academic blogs can help civil servants create evidence-based policy

Written by Colin Talbot on 2 October 2017 in Opinion
Opinion

Recent years has seen a rise in the number of academic blogs that analyse government plans. How can they help make better policy?

Photo: Pixabay

Much academic research, and probably even more academic expertise, is helpful to devising and implementing public policy.

In recent years there has been a determined effort on both sides of the academic-policymaker divide to bridge chasm that sometimes seems to exist between them.

On the ‘demand’ side the movement towards “evidence-based policy”, or more realistically “evidence informed policy” has been a international trend, but especially prominent in rhetoric, if not always practice, in the UK at all levels of government.

On the ‘supply’ side academics, universities and their various funding bodies, driven by pressures to show their relevance and contribution to society, have developed what is generally called the ‘impact’ agenda. Individual researchers, teams and universities are expected to demonstrate their economic and social benefits and of course their contributions to ‘evidence based policy’.


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One result of all this has been a minor explosion of academic-driven blogging on public policy issues – we have identified around three dozen sites so far (for a partial listing of UK sites see here).

(As a health warning, I started one of these initiatives at Manchester.)

The Conversation (2013)

The first online platform for academic output most people would come across is probably The Conversation, which is not actually a blogsite.

Laura Hood, their assistant editor and political editor, says “we’re a news and analysis website” and “we refer to our output as ‘articles’ because of the amount of editorial effort we put into them”.

The Conversation first emerged in Australia. According to Hood it is about “trying to get evidence-based research into journalism”. This covers the whole range of academic output, including themes on arts and culture, business and economy, cities, science and technology and more.

Obviously many of the research that is reported on The Conversation has public policy implications, although Hood says not a “huge amount” of their output is directly about such issues.

Although The Conversation’s Australian parent started out with some government support, the UK off-shoot relies almost entirely for funding from the ‘stipends’ provided by some 70-odd Universities (who in return get privileged access for their output). They have also had support from HEFCE, UKRI, and some charities.

A founding principle of The Conversation is to make their output not only freely available, but subject to ‘Creative Commons’ licensing – which means anyone can reproduce their material.

The results are impressive. Their own site gets almost one and half million unique views a month (in August 2017) but they get between 8 and 15 million views through re-publications of their blogs on a host of other sites in the UK and internationally.

LSE (2010)

In terms of individual universities seeking to promote policy-relevant research to wider audiences, the London School of Economics has clearly led the charge.

According to Jane Tinkler, who was one of the moving spirits behind the initial LSE blogging enterprise, it came about almost by accident.

In the run-up to the 2010 general election an LSE team including Jane Tinkler, Dr Simon Bastow and Professor Patrick Dunleavy, had been working on a major project on the “impact of the social sciences” (later published as a book).

They wanted to make LSE research on politics and public policy “more visible” during the election. Initially, they wanted to do this via a website but ran into problems and a member of the team with some personal experience of blogging suggested it as an answer. So the LSE British Politics and Policy blog was born.

According to Jane Tinkler they were also lucky because the BBC, under political pressure to scale back its ambitious online presence, started cutting back on its own politics and policy coverage online just as the LSE blogsite launched.

The LSE was also helped by being fairly open to contributions from other, non-LSE, academics – according to Tinkler only about a third of posts came from the LSE’s own staff.

The success of the initial blog led to the LSE hierarchy making substantial funds available for a 5-year program of activity which led to the spawning of a whole suite of LSE policy and politics blogsites.

Manchester (2013)

University of Manchester followed the LSE’s lead and set up Manchester Policy Blogs in 2013. Funded by some strategic investment from the university this was part of wider initiative to promote and co-ordinate public policy activity across one of the UKs largest institutions.

I was involved in this site and, like the LSEs first efforts, there was something of a gamble involved in setting up Manchester’s policy blogging effort – we weren’t sure if we’d get anyone to write for it. In the event we were inundated with contributions. Over four years around 700 posts have appeared, by over 500 academic authors (mostly from Manchester). The most popular of these usually get between 5-6,000 views each, with a lot of government, public bodies and media outlets picking them up.

Professor Francis Livens, director of Dalton Nuclear Institute at Manchester commented that “our Euratom/Brexit blog post worked well, apparently – over 1,200 views and on average over 5 mins reading time so people really are reading it.

What Impact? What Use?

What’s the evidence that any of this activity is having any impact on policymakers? Early evidence wasn’t encouraging. When we conducted a survey of senior civil servants, in March 2014, academic blogsites were the least used by them as a means of accessing academic research and expertise - only 9% compared to 79% for ‘research reports and papers’ and 61% for newspapers and magazines. But at that point there were very few blogsites – they have mushroomed mainly since then.

The Conversation’s huge viewing numbers include lots of popular science and other articles. The LSE and Manchester sites don’t usually get such large numbers, but given the size of the public policy community in the UK (probably around half a million in total) very large audiences on specific issues aren’t really to be expected – it is more the quality that counts.

A Brighton academic's research on earthquake-proof building technology cited in European Parliament debates, while one article from a University of York researcher on African air pollution, republished in Guardian and BBC World Service, was subsequently cited in an OECD report. Conversation articles have also been cited in evidence submitted to parliament on topics such as digital democracy, welfare reform, criminal justice, reform of the Mental Health Act, and women in parliament. Articles were also cited in select committees discussing Brexit, fisheries, restoration of the Houses of Parliament, EU-Russia relations

For the LSE, Jane Tinkler says their blogs have had significant impact in the media coverage of various politics and policy issues. Both Manchester and The Conversation also have cases where parliamentary select committees have picked up and used evidence from their blogs.

The Manchester site published as PDF a collection of posts on ‘DevoManc’ (the Manchester devolution deal) in June 2015 that was downloaded 11,000 times, cited in a House of Commons Briefing, and was sent to every leader of public services in the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ area.

Also a Manchester blog post on TTIP (the proposed Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership) led to a whole series of outcomes including evidence to a select committee and one of the authors jetting off to the USA.

Certainly readership numbers are impressive and media impact is undeniable. What we don’t know for sure is how much of this is getting through to policymakers? It would be interesting to hear from CSW readers about their experiences with accessing academic expertise and research via blogs?

About the author

Colin Talbot is professor of government (emeritus) at the University of Manchester and research associate at the University of Cambridge

 

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