Case study: How academic ‘policy entrepreneurs’ can help the civil service

From the impact of Covid-19 to dealing with the impact of climate change, government has never faced greater policy challenges. But, as recent work on developing policy strategies for carbon capture and storage shows, civil servants can get help from academics to find the right solutions. Professor Karen Turner, the director from the Centre for Energy Policy at the University of Strathclyde, explains

A carbon capture and storage facility in Germany. Photo: PA

By Karen Turner

19 Jun 2020

As countries around the world face the tough challenge of transitioning to low or net zero carbon economies, there is an important opportunity for public policy makers to benefit from policy and political science to help underpin policy decision-making.

In our recently published paper in the Journal of European Public Policy, we demonstrate how academics working in the fields of political economics and engineering can take the role of policy entrepreneurs, employing policy science knowledge and identifying ‘policy windows’ during which new ideas can take root and coalitions can build around informed policy narratives.

Our work was set in the context of advancing the public policy debate around carbon capture and storage as large-scale climate change solutions for industrial decarbonisation in the UK by helping place the policy debate on the issue within a wider economic and industrial context but the approach is applicable across a range of issues. This article summarises our experience in developing our idea, how we built consensus around the accompanying policy narrative, culminating in the development of a strategic policy statement.





A new approach to working with policy makers 

In the wake of the Paris Agreement, and anticipating the advice of the UK Committee on Climate Change to set targets for a ‘net zero carbon’ economy by 2050, an opportunity to impact policy development opened in the UK, with government setting up a range of consultations to understand what such a target implies and potential routes to achieving it. This is what political scientists call a ‘policy window’. We recognised that government’s concern lay in the fact that the net zero transition is a challenge that requires transformative and system level changes in how people live and do business. This set the context in which the development of new ideas and policy narratives by policy scientists, in the role of ‘policy entrepreneurs’, would be useful to the strategic policy development process. 

As a team of policy scientists, we understood that government officials and politicians were actively seeking support for a process of identifying and pursuing pathways for a net zero transition that would be viable in a political economy context. 

Specifically, there was a need for government officials in the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) to build consensus around shifting the narrative around carbon capture use and storage (CCUS) from purely an energy system solution to place it within the UK’s industrial strategy. In positioning ourselves to participate in the policy process at this point, we drew on our own research base in analysing the value associated with sustaining industry activity and explored how knowledge in the political sciences could inform the process of developing and building consensus across a technology developer and industry community around a new policy narrative. 

In the paper, we set out an approach that can be applied in any techno-economic policy arena to establish and build agreement and support around what could be seen as a ‘disruptive idea’. Our idea related to the need for industrial decarbonisation activities to meet the central aim of reducing emissions, whilst also importantly delivering outcomes aligned with the UK’s wider industrial policy and the need for industries to remain competitive as they decarbonize – what we have termed as providing a sustained fiscal and economic contribution. 

This idea was not necessarily new for those working in industrial strategy, public finance or economic policy. However, it was less familiar to the community of experts and stakeholders in the energy sector (the CCUS Cost Challenge Task Force, CCTF) assembled by a major decision maker (the then Secretary of State) to consider a specific policy proposal and with whom we were attempting to build a consensus.
Our approach was made up of three parts: Positioning ourselves as policy entrepreneurs; articulating and building consensus around our idea though setting out an appealing narrative, and empowering decision makers to reflect ideas in a strategic policy statement. 

We anticipated one main obstacle: that our entry a policy area previously focussed on technology and project cost issues, would be seen as taking priority over the stakeholder community’s own interests. To tackle this, we looked to political science research, which established that building narratives ‘can provide a reassuring perspective of continuity, even amidst major change’. In doing so, we also considered how ideas with strong positive emotional quality, or valence, may have broader appeal and be more productive in building coalitions – a point also established by the political science community

However, at the stage of developing, articulating and communicating the idea and narrative around the ‘sustained contribution’ – using both in-person engagement and a short briefing paper – we also considered that identifying potential negative narratives (such as job losses associated with decarbonisation activity) would help articulate the need to consider economic, social justice and distributional implications for a wider society. 

The outcome

We successfully gained legitimacy for our ‘sustained contribution’ idea through a consensus building process with the targeted group of stakeholders, the CCTF, who reflected our idea and narrative in making their own recommendations to government. Crucially, BEIS officials enabled and supported this process. The outcome was the empowerment of those officials to reflect the idea, and the evidence we used to underpin the narrative within the 2018 CCUS Action Plan. 

Our conclusion is that there is a great opportunity for policy decision makers to make use of the skills and expertise of policy scientists to support effective policy making that aligns the interests of those expected to deliver solutions – and that this collaborative approach will be ever more important if the UK is to meet the societal challenge of reducing emissions to net zero. 


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