Eschew obfuscation: only plain language has a chance to influence policy

Posted by Kristine Pommert

The ink may barely be dry on the REF results – but if you want to do better on your policy impacts next time, Jonathan Shepherd, Vice-Dean of Innovation and Engagement at Cardiff University, has one piece of advice for you: wrapping all your statements in caveats and qualifying all your findings simply doesn’t work. “The obfuscation, confusion and the uncertainty this generates,” he tells this week’s Times Higher Education, “can significantly reduce the chances of implementation.” Or to put it more simply: if you speak to policymakers in obscure language, your message – however worthwhile – will simply be ignored.

For me, this rings a whole set of bells. Many were the times when as a BBC programme maker, I was looking for that fresh academic voice – someone who could explain to our radio audience why there is so much homophobia in West Africa, or the significance of new mutations of the Bluetongue virus, or the finer points of the West Lothian question. And many the times, too, when I had to let the academic hopeful at the other end of the phone down gently because – despite my encouragements to explain it “just as you would to your mother” – they just couldn’t express their key message without endless caveats, academic jargon and methodological detail. Which meant that I was unable to put them on air.

More recently, I’ve seen the same problems in face to face training. Writing a strong policy brief is an essential skill for any academic who wants to make an impact on public policy – and those attending my recent policy brief workshop were certainly keen. Which doesn’t mean that writing a policy brief on their own research came easily to them: lifting their heads above the thicket of academic facts and language that is their normal habitat, and thinking through what busy policymakers are able to take in, proved a steep learning curve for some.

Yet by the end, everyone had produced at least part of a viable policy brief – one that laid out in simple language what policy issue they had identified and how their research findings were suited to address it. Which goes to show that even an afternoon’s workshop can make a huge difference in getting rid of the obscurity and obfuscation Jonathan Shepherd so deplores.

To influence policy, of course, you are likely to need more than one well-crafted brief. With the next REF barely looming on the horizon, some academic teams are already beginning to work on more elaborate policy strategies. And some of those are discovering that getting MPs and ministers on board, reaching out to charities and other stakeholders and devising effective social media campaigns can be an awful lot of work – work which we are well placed to take off their hands. As the University of Exeter has already found out, it works – and their research into the effectiveness of landscape restoration programmes has been cited in parliamentary debates as a result.

Some of our clients

Get in touch

Follow us