Engaging with policy, and trying it out on the spot – personal workshop takeaways

A few takeaways which have stuck with me from the PRAXIS workshop on heritage researchers and their engagement / potential engagement with policy-making:

We shouldn’t overthink it / expertise counts. 

We are used as academics to couching arguments within a hypothesised context often, which can lead to writing that can be less than definite in its views.  In developing evidence which may be used as policy, whilst data and argument does matter, the format and amount of back-up for arguments is the same as may be required in a typical peer-reviewed paper which is open to close scrutiny.  I am not saying that evidence should be lightweight, but equally in our approach to engagement, we shouldn’t overthink things before submitting. Likewise, academics do have expertise, and can be recognised as such due to their experience and positions – we should not be over-concerned about setting out our credentials to show that our views are valid.

The quality of input considered evidence isn’t that high. 

    Within the workshop, an interesting exercise was undertaken where we worked in groups critiquing materials that had already been submitted and accepted as evidence by the House of Lords enquiry which we were using as a case study. The range of materials was interesting, ranging from simple statements of fact, through to closely argumented positions statements.  Not all pieces of evidence stuck to the brief for the call for evidence, and some pieces did not pass the ‘accept as first year undergraduate coursework’ critical viewpoint.  The bar for what is considered evidence suitable for consideration is not the same as a journal article or what might be acceptable in an academic setting – however this doesn’t mean it isn’t used in high level situations, and therefore as academics we very clearly could provide considerable benefit to contributing (given the quality of what else might be considered).

It can be challenging to think about potential impact in the arts and humanities space.

    There was broad recognition that within the arts and humanities space, engagement with policy was not as widespread; the benefits (for all parties) was not well recognised; the potential contribution not realised; and the thinking process may be more difficult for researchers who are used to approaching the subject in a different way (based on the background of the researcher).  Findings or outputs from arts and humanities research might need considerable repurposing to make them suitable for input into policy, and, as one senior academic in the room neatly put it, their brain has to work in two different modes of thinking as to whether they are using material and knowledge for research or for evidence production and submission.  This is not necessarily easy, as the mindsets are different.

Provide killer facts and do some packaging of solutions. 

    Evidence that might be picked up, quoted and used within discussions, often takes the form of a ‘killer fact’ or turn of phrase which suits arguments being made in a sometimes political setting.  Blinding policy-makers or committees with data might be what we want to do, to ensure people have the right facts to back up arguments, but sometimes it can be too much.  Statistics and data needs simple explanation for the everyday reader who may not be an expert in the specialised field of the academic.  Where solutions can be provided for a problem, inference and obfuscation can sometimes hide the intended meaning (especially in the language of academic papers) – a bit of packaging of solutions is therefore worthwhile and appreciated.

Don’t create work for those reading.

    Allied to much of what has been said already, and perhaps obvious – the reader has to be able to understand what is being said.  Inference, nuanced arguments and theoretical frameworks, whilst important, do not necessarily help a reader who is looking for clarity in what is being said.  Think about the abstract rather than the full paper as the equivalent.  Particularly for Parliamentary enquiries and evidence gathering, simplicity in language is really important – as the weight of evidence from across the board may be substantial.

Relate to the brief. 

    We pick up our students on this – but in looking at what had been asked for and what was submitted, in a number of cases the submission really wasn’t entirely relevant. (This may have been deliberate in some cases where a different point was being put across, but it doesn’t necessarily help the analysers of the evidence).
  1. Potentially great impact from arts and humanities researchers.

The interest in the wider role of culture, society, creativity and comparators than can be brought from different societies, viewpoints, locations, and points in time has the potential to add great depth to policy consideration and analysis of evidence.  We should get more involved in submitting evidence that we do currently.

Academic incentives don’t always relate to policy (impact is often thought of differently).

There was much reflection on the incentivisation scheme for getting involved in policy work – recognising that structures in which many of us work rate research, teaching and particular forms of impact metric in such a way that the reasons for investing in policy engagement may not be high.  Even with the impact agenda expanding, there was talk about the way in which impact has to be evaluated and demonstrated, meaning that policy engagement along the way, as opposed to clearly seeing an outcome or change as a result of input can prove problematic.

Translating international heritage research into policy

I was invited to present a keynote talk last week on how I have engaged with heritage policy making over an extended period. This formed part of a workshop at the University of Leeds, run by PRAXIS, under the GCRF programme – a giant funding stream from the UK research councils designed to address a range of global issues. Various projects funded via the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) are either heritage-focused or have elements of heritage activity or cultural resource use within them. From discussion with the organisers and delegates at the workshop, this very international / externally-facing group of research projects (as far as geography is concerned) have potential to influence policy both in the overseas territories in which the work is being undertaken, but also potentially back home. However, the challenge and skills gap identified is one of how to go about translating these findings into a policy context, and where best to do it.

I tried to convey a few key points based on my experience:

  1. Policy happens in many places / levels / geographies and organisational settings. We tend to think of policy being something which is done by national governments through Ministries and the legal system. Policy, however, exists in many different places, and influence (possibly with greater results) might be achieved in a policy context at a city, region or locality scale, or with a particular group of stakeholders. Equally, policies exist within the organisational context, of NGOs, civil society bodies, charities and businesses – and research outcomes or findings may be able to have influence on decision-making and approaches to issues there. Indeed, some research outputs in the international development space, allied to low-tech and simple solutions to a problem, potentially have commercial application in another space supporting entrepreneurship. So, policy isn’t just about Governments.
  2. Approaches to issues and methodologies might be as important as a specific policy or shift. A lot of my own work over the past 25 years hasn’t directly influenced a specific outcome or output, but has facilitated development of knowledge management, which has in turn been able to be used to influence policy and decisions higher up the Governmental chain, or elsewhere in the sector’s ecosystem of organisations. I used the example of Heritage Counts and Historic Environment Audits – which I was instrumental in establishing in the first place (back in 2000-2002 in England, and subsequently in Scotland), through demonstration to lead heritage bodies in the home nations, that collation of key statistics and KPIs, alongside a focused data collection and analysis programme, could help to address the perceived lack of ability to argue the case for heritage within a national policy setting.
  3. This can take time. Policy and/or approaches to policy aren’t made or changed overnight (usually). Getting involved with policy has to be thought of in the timeframe beyond any research itself, and may take an extended period of years. Another case study I used was my small involvement through the Built Environment Forum Scotland’s workstream groups supporting the creation of the Scottish Government’s national heritage strategy in Scotland (Our Place in Time). This took place over a period of almost two years in total.
  4. Engagement with policy can take particular type of effort and engagement. I think it is really important to translate research into policy influence, to support better evidence-based policy making (to use a well known public policy phrase): but this requires a particular decision to get involved and stay involved on a personal level as an academic. This decision has to be made in the context of everything else that an academic might be expected to do ‘in the day job’, as many involvements beyond taking time, require other kinds of capacity to engage properly. In my own case, over the past 4 years, I have stepped back from an absolutely full time role in order to ‘buy’ me some space to continue to engage with organisations and policy approaches properly. It all complements and feeds back in a myriad of inter-relationships into my own day job, and arguably makes me a more useful member of University staff because of it, but it required me to make some very specific decisions and considerations about my career.

I will reflect a little further on the workshop in another couple of posts, and will also make my slides available. The PRAXIS team filmed parts of the event, and a podcast is also going to be made available, which we made at the end of the day picking up on some key questions.

Access to research – getting behind the paywall of academic journals via the local library

Various people have contacted me since I started my gradual listing of useful journals for heritage-related research about the problems of accessing articles behind paywalls. There is an ongoing debate about this issue more widely in academia, but great progress has been made on making research more accessible via open-access decisions made in the publication process by authors; expectations now made by research funders for results to be open access; and publication materials being made available via institutional repositories.

Allied to this, it is worth flagging the UK’s excellent Access To Research scheme, which it not as well known about as it should be (and not well publicised by local library services either).  Usually journals have their article abstracts fully available anyway, but a quick check via the search function on the Access to Research site shows if full availability is possible via a visit to a local UK library branch in person, and using a computer there.  As a big advocate of the public library system (with weekly visits to our village branch), I think this is a great scheme – and helps to offer a fair way in to the gated community of academic publications for the general public and independent researchers.

Meanwhile, according to my spreadsheet, I have reached number 52 in my academic journals category on this blog.  This is half way through my current ‘curated’ list – so hopefully another few months of ad hoc collating information and posting and I will get to the end of what started as a learning and teaching mission to signpost my students to the variety of places for accessing inter/cross-disciplinary heritage research (and ones which I considered useful). My intention is to upload the full spreadsheet as a resource page on the blog, and continue to add to it as I come across useful places where heritage research is appearing.

Heritage research questions and evidence

In pulling together ideas for a couple of upcoming talks, the Framework for Policy Research which the now defunct UK Historic Environment Research Group (UKHRG) created in 2005 re-emerged from my filing system. I was running part of the Heritage Futures programme at Glasgow Caledonian University at that point, producing regular e-updates covering research, data and knowledge which was of relevance for the sector.  The Framework still has questions that are relevant, and which are now being addressed in a variety of ways through the Heritage Counts / Heritage Auditing programmes in England, Scotland and Wales, as well as via research supported through research councils such as the AHRC.

It is pleasing to see that an ecosystem of heritage research of relevance to policy is now well established, though there are still challenges in capturing all the potentially useful bits of knowledge that are ‘out there’.  An oft-quoted mantra within the sector is that we don’t have enough evidence to make conclusive arguments (usually in the public policy arena). I remain firmly of the opinion that we are actually drowning in evidence – it can be found across academic research, grey literature, institutional data etc. Our problem remains in effectively signposting, synthesising and translating/using the evidence effectively.  It is a knowledge management challenge, not a lack of data and information problem, so discussions underway in England about the potential development of a Heritage Observatory (which I have been making noise about for years!) is exciting.

Access the archived UKHRG Research Framework here: UK_HERITAGE_RESEARCH_POLICY

Academic journals: Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites

Journal summary: Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites (CMAS) was launched in 1995 and focuses on both theoretical and practical issues in heritage site management and conservation. Peer-reviewed papers from around the world report on new thinking and best practice in site management and conservation. CMAS also publishes short comments, conference, book and website reviews, and lists relevant new publications.

Topics covered include:

  • Cultural, social, ethical and theoretical issues in archaeological site management and conservation
  • Site management
  • Historical documentation and condition reporting
  • Site deterioration and environmental monitoring
  • Preventative conservation, including reburial and protective sheltering of sites
  • Building materials analysis and treatment
  • Restoration and reconstruction of buildings
  • Visitor management and sustainable tourism
  • Site interpretation
  • National and international legislation and charters

Publisher: Routledge

Website: https://www.tandfonline.com/toc/ycma20/current

Access: Subscription; some open-access articles

Journal type: Academic peer-reviewed

Academic journals: Archeostorie – Journal of Public Archaeology

Journal summary: Archeostorie Journal of Public Archaeology (AJPA) is the open access peer-reviewed scientific journal that provides Italy with an arena to discuss issues such as the management and communication of heritage and the role of archaeology into contemporary society. It produces insightful analyses on significant initiatives aimed at involving the public in archaeological and heritage issues, and bridging the gap between our past and modernity. Furthermore, AJPA wants to encourage scientific debate on Public Archaeology as a discipline, and promote and coordinate related activities. It also aims to promote debate on the future of the profession, and specifically on whether public engagement in archaeological research can contribute to grant archaeologists a different, and hopefully more relevant, role in contemporary society.
AJPA is published once a year, in Spring. Each issue has a Topic of the year session with papers that analyze a specific subject from several points of view, and a Satura Lanx session with papers beyond the main theme.

Publisher: Centre for Public Archaeology Studies ‘Archeostorie’ – cultural association

Website: http://www.archeostoriejpa.eu/

Access: Open access

Journal type: Academic peer-reviewed

Academic journals: Anthropological Journal of European Cultures (AJEC)

Journal summary: Published since 1990, Anthropological Journal of European Cultures (AJEC) engages with current debates and innovative research agendas addressing the social and cultural transformations of contemporary European societies. The journal serves as an important forum for ethnographic research in and on Europe, which in this context is not defined narrowly as a geopolitical entity but rather as a meaningful cultural construction in people’s lives, which both legitimates political power and calls forth practices of resistance and subversion. By presenting both new field studies and theoretical reflections on the history and politics of studying culture in Europe anthropologically, AJEC encompasses different academic traditions of engaging with its subject, from social and cultural anthropology to European ethnology and empirische Kulturwissenschaften.
In addition to the thematic focus of each issue, which has characterised the journal from its inception, AJEC now also carries individual articles on other topics addressing aspects of social and cultural transformations in contemporary Europe from an ethnographically grounded anthropological perspective. All such contributions are peer reviewed. Each issue also includes book reviews and reports on major current research programmes.

Publisher: Berghahn

Website: https://www.berghahnjournals.com/view/journals/ajec/ajec-overview.xml

Access: Subscription; some open-access articles

Journal type: Academic peer-reviewed