The civil service

Engaging with the civil service is a less immediate way to influence policy as departmental advice takes longer to develop than political advice; however, if you can provide research-led advice on a specific issue, your research will be embedded in departmental policy advice from an early stage, and can fundamentally shape policy. The potential for substantial impact is therefore high.

Working with civil servants can lead to mutually beneficial long-term relationships; while a minister has to move from issue to issue in response to shifting political landscapes (and may themselves not be in post for longer than a single parliamentary session), policy directorates have much more stable remits. Many of the case studies in this toolkit have arisen out of collaborations between Northern Bridge academics and policy units that are based on relationships developed over many years.

Who to contact

Make sure you contact the most appropriate civil servant for the issue. Rather than go straight to the Permanent Secretary, who will only concern themself with issues of the highest importance, identify those few civil servants who have responsibility for your policy area. It is these officials, probably five or six grades from the top of a department, who will provide the first draft of analysis and advice on the relevant policy. If you can develop a relationship with them, your research and advice will flow up to more senior levels.

See How to find a government contact for how to find the right person to speak to. Once you know who your contact is, a phonecall or brief email introducing yourself is a good way to begin the conversation - don't send research material unless it's asked for. Civil service outreach officers can smooth the way for you considerably - if the agency you're trying to contact has such a position, make the most of them.

How to work effectively with civil servants

If a government department is interested in drawing further on your research, or in working with you, you may need to approach this in a fundamentally different way:

  • A project’s aims and outputs will have to meet their needs as well as yours – and these are likely to differ in some respects
  • You may have to juggle competing views from several government agencies, which need to be reflected
  • You will need to manage competing communication styles: academics and policy analysts write very differently
  • Government timeframes are often much shorter than academic timeframes

See the Essential skills section for more information on how to work with and write for policy audiences.