Engaging with central and devolved government

Engaging with government, whether central or devolved, is probably what most people think of when they think about influencing public policy, and with good reason: the central and devolved governments make decisions that affect the entire nation. If you are able to engage with national policymakers, you may be able to influence policy at the highest level.

Engaging with the Northern Ireland civil service from Digital Media @ Newcastle on Vimeo.

Dr Bethany Sinclair, Outreach Officer for the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (Northern Ireland) explains the role of the Northern Ireland civil service, and how government departments make use of academic research.

Engaging with policymakers means getting involved at the policy development stage – before a policy goes through the parliamentary process. You’ll be seeking to influence, advise, or even collaborate with government policymakers such as civil servants and ministerial staff. Unlike, say, giving evidence to a Select Committee or contacting your MP, the routes to achieving this kind of influence are not obvious, and finding out who you need to approach, and how to contact them, can be difficult.

You should also bear in mind that rather than speaking from the position of expert witness, citizen, or lobbyist, you may become, or be perceived as, an active collaborator in the policy you’re seeking to shape. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and it may in fact be something you actively seek (and there are numerous examples of very successful and well-regarded government-academic collaborative projects and institutions), but is important to consider.

Who’s in charge?

Start by identifying exactly which ministers, which departments – and also which administrations – have responsibility for the area or issue your research impacts on.

  • Remember that many policy issues cut across several departments and a number of ministers may be involved in their development.
  • Depending on whether the issue is handled by central government or is an area of devolved responsibility, and whether you want to influence policy over the United Kingdom as a whole, or a particular area, it may be best to approach the devolved governments as well as, or instead of, the central government department.

For example, if you wanted to influence heritage policy, you could simply make contacts at the UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which oversees some matters to do with heritage on a national level. But depending on where you are based, it would also make sense to get in touch with the Scottish Culture and Heritage Directorate, the Welsh Museums, Libraries and Archives Division, or the Northern Ireland Department for Culture, Arts and Leisure, since many heritage policy matters fall under devolved responsibilities.

All of this information is readily available on government websites, and most government departments allow you to sign up for email alerts or RSS feeds for policy announcements and document releases. It’s also a good idea to keep an eye out in the media for relevant political debates or policy announcements, and see which ministers and departments are mentioned.

This section considers:

Ministers and the minister's office
The civil service
Devolved administrations
How to find a government contact