Four professors and a dragon fairy


Why academics need to engage with policy-making, and how using social and digital media can help them.

I was invited to host a social media workshop and contribute to a panel at the University of Bristol’s Policy and Politics 40th Anniversary Conference. Naturally Puffles joined me. I should say a big **Thank you** to Professor Alex Marsh for the invitation, and to everyone attending who put up with the strange bloke carrying around a dragon fairy for most of the time.

I’m glad that I went – not least because of what I learnt from the other speakers and in the conversations that I had, but because as somewhat of a digital native it’s always useful to be challenged by people who are much more sceptical, unfamiliar with or even hostile to all things social media. It was also a reminder that not everyone is going to ‘get’ Puffles or the ideas and the history behind my favourite dragon fairy.

In one sense, the presence of Puffles sort of keeps away those who may not appreciate the fun I and close followers have with Puffles. I’ve only had one unfortunate tirade at one gathering as a result of having Puffles with me and the less said about that the better. On the other hand, people not interested in either Puffles or social media tend to keep away from the both of us – or so it seems. Yet the same point comes up time and again for organisations and those at the top of them: How do you handle social media and its users?

A conference of experts

In one sense this was a traditional conference. A series of seminars in nice surroundings (the part of Bristol around the Cathedral and City Hall is lovely) where experts give presentations followed by Q&A sessions. Little difference between this and conferences I attended and/or spoke at during my civil service days. The only difference being that I was not there as an academic expert. If anything, I was the academic lightweight in a room full of professors and PhDs in their field. My expertise came from having spent time inside the system, inside the policy-making machines that many of the academics spend their time studying and scrutinising. What struck me was the number of topics discussed that had previously been policy areas I had worked in.

The difference between academia looking outside in and being inside the machine

During the latter part of my civil service career it struck me at how little cross-over there was between the civil service and academia. It was only just before the 2010 general election that I noticed a real push to bring in academics to work with policy makers below the senior civil service level. I found it interesting how some of the frustrations I had with the way the civil service was managed – along with the political system – were similar to those felt by academics. One particular gripe was the impact of ministerial reshuffles – one that had huge impact on policy research because of changing ministerial priorities. It wasn’t just the huge amount of money that reshuffles cost inside the system, but the huge amount of goodwill and work that was lost outside of it. What’s the point in getting behind the new minister’s priorities only to find them moving onto a new job in a year’s time?

There were also a whole host of insights they gave that I thought would have been really useful to have had inside policy-making world. By that I mean at policy-delivery level, or below Grade 5 level in the civil service for those of you that use old money. In particular, I feel there is a role for masters to junior post-doctorate researchers to team up with/interchange with civil servants – if anything for the researchers to get a feel for the Whitehall timetable and circle, and for the latter to get a feel for what real detailed scrutiny feels like. Given the points made at the conference, I couldn’t help but feel that many senior officials or ministers would have their work cut out facing an audience like the one I was in. Yet too much from both Parliament and Whitehall that is published is not properly examined and scrutinised – even though there is a huge wealth of untapped expertise out there.

Think tanks get taken out

Think tanks came in for one hell of a kicking at this gathering – and for good reason. The weaker ones were put down as ‘apologetics’ – making lots of noise in favour of a political agenda they had already adopted irrespective of any evidence that was out there or could have been researched. Yet at the same time, I said that think tanks tended to be far better at getting their messages out to the media than university-linked institutes. In a couple of discussions I had with some think-tank types earlier this year, they told me it was because people within the think tanks had far stronger connections and friendships within the media than their critics did. They also know how to work with politicians and the media far better than academics do – for example providing the short, sharp news-friendly summaries at convenient times in the news cycle. In academia too much is contained in journals that is written in a more complicated language that is often locked up behind paywalls. Which one’s going to get the media coverage?

The think tank meets the tank-buster?

Interestingly with the Coalition’s priorities, a number of universities are looking to, or are already establishing public policy institutes similar to those seen in other countries. This is where things could get very ‘tasty’ as far as improving the quality of debate is concerned. When I look at the websites of some think tanks, I am struck by how small their numbers of staff are. Previously I had the impression that think tanks were these huge institutions that were a hive of brilliantly-researched radical ideas. Well…not all of them. With some of the larger universities looking to set up or beef up their public policy units, this creates new challenges for think tanks – and opportunities too.

For the ones that are explicitly biased or have a political line to take, there will now be institutes that will be more than happy to pull them up on it – not least because they will have the resources and staff available to do so. For those that pride themselves on the robustness, quality, depth and independence of their research there are opportunities to link up with such institutes – possibly even merging. This then begs the question: Will there be a greater expectation of think-tank types to have done more advanced studying before moving into think tanks? Will we also see some of the smaller think tanks merging? On top of this, there is also the move away from the traditional ‘think tank in a building’ to a more remote ‘networked’ one as demonstrated by Guerilla Policy.

Communications skills

This was something that came up time and again in my mind. There were a number of brilliantly devastating critiques of all things government and the civil service at the conference that covered decades worth of policies and initiatives. Yet few of them had gone beyond the world of academia, and those that had seemed to have gained little traction within Westminster, Whitehall and the media. Why?

This was one of the tensions that was exposed at the conference – between those that wanted to increase ‘impact’ versus those that were concerned about the ‘purity’ of their academic area, not wanting it to be tainted by party politics. Personally I came down on the side of the ‘impact’ people – not least on the grounds that as tax payers fund the work of many academics, the tax payer has the right to see the fruits of the work of academics. That for me implies a duty upon academics to engage with the wider public in their work. How to do so effectively is another question.

What has social media got to do with all of this?

Communication. I mentioned the problem of too much being tucked away in journals that only academics and specialists can afford to access. It’s all very well doing splendid research but if it’s all hidden away behind a pay wall, who’s going to read it? How is the otherwise excellent research that may be hidden behind the paywalls going to get out into a more mainstream audience? This is where I’m with the likes of Hadley Beeman and friends. The tax payer has already funded most of the researchers to do the work – release your findings! The other risk is that in social media world, people will simply bypass what they cannot access. How often have you bypassed a website that otherwise might have contained an interesting article because you could not access it?

So…how should academics use social media to get their message out there?

I tend not to like the word ‘should’ – it’s up to individuals whether they choose to use social media or not. Academics however need to understand the impact that social media is having on their specialist area and make a judgement call accordingly. Those at the top of institutes need to consider whether their staff and units need to be trained and skilled in how to harness the power of social media, as well as making them aware of the risks associated with it.

Starting off with the ‘passive’ use of social media – one where you are reading rather than contributing, there are often things coming out of Whitehall & Parliament and think tanks that could do with the scrutiny academics can bring to bear. Simple things such as automated alerts when a certain select committee, think tank or department publishes something can go a very long way indeed – because it increases the chance that people will talk about it.

In terms of more active use, this was something the panel I was on – along with Professors Alex Marsh, Colin Talbot, Matthew Flinders and Peter John all discussed. (Hence “4 professors and a dragon fairy” ). All of them tweet or blog to a greater or lesser extent. What this means is that they can all challenge and be challenged about what they write about. This has the benefit of both raising their profile and spreading their expert knowledge to audiences far beyond academia, but also means that they have to face the challenge of being scrutinised by audiences that may feel far less ‘safe’ than the ones they are familiar with in academia.

My own view is that the wealth of knowledge contained just within this academic field is too rich to remain locked up in an academic bubble. It needs to be freed. Ditto with other academic fields too. You never know – it might inspire others to move towards this field, enriching and diversifying what can sometimes feel like a male-dominated field. (Note all the people on my panel – including myself – were men, even though I was the baby of the bunch.) Talking of scrutiny of what we said, my commentary and the slides I used for the panel are on my website here, should any of you be interested.

In terms of future conferences, I think there is a role for a greater social media presence – not least in terms of getting people to contribute from outside. A number of social media users could not make the event. Yet it is becoming more the norm that conferences use social and digital media to source questions and contributions from outside. For an area as important as public policy, this for me is one of the next big steps. That along with making a big push to train and support academics in using social and digital media.



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