Timeframes and planning

As academic researchers, we are used to organising our research activities around two main cycles: the university teaching year, and the six-yearly research assessment (currently the Research Eexercise Framework, or REF). These cycles shape when we do lots of our research, and, to some extent, how long it takes. Academic research takes a long time to conduct and write, and it also takes time to disseminate and publish, and for other academics to respond to.

Policymakers, on the other hand, work to much tighter timeframes which are dictated by the fact their role is to directly serve the public. These timeframes won’t necessarily align well with the academic year, either: the Parliamentary year, for example, runs from May to April, with a summer recess from July to September, which is when many academics plan to do research activity.

While some policies are the result of long-term planning, involving months of advice, negotiation, and submissions from interested parties, others are the result of very fast decision-making in response to sudden developments. Local, national and international events, Parliamentary debates, media attention, and public opinion can all cause a public policy change in a matter of days – or hours. Even if it is not a response to an urgent need, the policy development process may appear fast from a researcher's perspective. Select Committee calls for evidence, for example, usually close around a month from the date the call is announced.

Stakeholders who wish to influence policy, including academic researchers, must therefore be able to work within timeframes set by policymakers and the political agenda. This has important implications for how you plan projects. Here are some suggestions for how you might approach planning in a slightly different way:

  • Some deadlines (e.g. Select Committee submissions and consultations on white papers) will be outside your control. These need to form the basis of your planning: rather than starting from the ideal output and estimating how long that will take, start from the non-negotiable dates, and work out what is achievable in that time.
  • Where there is more flexibility, you will still need to consider the different needs of your partners or audience. Third sector organisations will generally need to show quick outcomes, particularly if user groups are involved or stand to benefit, while officials in local and central government have to work within overarching timetables set by Government or councils. The onus may be on academics to be flexible.
  • Shorter timeframes will affect what kinds of output are feasible. For example, given how long it can take for an academic publication to come out, it may be better to consider non-academic forms of publication and dissemination, such as a user or practitioner guide, a website, a policy briefing, a report, or an article or comment piece.
  • If you are briefing or have a meeting with a civil servant or, especially, an MP or a minister, it’s very important you don’t miss the deadline. Politicians are extremely busy, and if you can’t work within their timeframes, they’ll move on – and you’re unlikely to get a second chance.