Working with Holyrood

By Professor Ken Gibb, Director of Policy Scotland 

The clue is in the name – Policy Scotland naturally aspires to bring academics and policymakers, including legislators and ministers together. We want to know what they are interested in and we also want to let them know about important and high quality policy-related research and evidence we are developing at the University. So, it is not surprising that we find ourselves working with them, participating in discussions with ministers and appearing in front of committees in evidence sessions at the Scottish Parliament.

To some colleagues this will sound quite horrific, or just irrelevant to their work. For some that might be the end of it but there are academics who wish to promote their research to governments and legislatures and indeed those who have not thought explicitly about it but could play such a role and do so effectively. While I imagine everyone is well aware of the REF impact arguments and the great advantage that timely and relevant research-infused policy work might bring, there is for many a residual concern or anxiety about this kind of work.

I thought rather than provide a reasoned set of arguments for getting engaged with the political system as a critical friend or subject expert, it might be just as useful to say a little bit about my own experiences and reflect on working with Holyrood.

I did my first evidence session to the Scottish Parliament back in the first Parliament representing a housing association to talk about the policy of transferring council housing stock (and this was before Holyrood itself was finished). I remember it as a vaguely terrifying experience and one that felt a lot like doing media work. While I used to do a fair bit of media work I always drew the line with live TV or radio – in fact it was only about three years ago that I finally did live TV (and live radio was also relatively recent).

Principle 1: only talk about areas I have genuine expertise over and make sure I have time to prepare and to do so based on the core principles you are taught on media training courses.

Principle 2: a test of that degree of expertise and also whether you feel comfortable doing this sort of work is whether you can communicate the gist of national and international research evidence relevant to the topic in hand and the likely questions asked.

Principle 3: I still view Holyrood/Westminster/ministerial evidence sessions as essentially like live broadcasting and treat them with the similar (intended)) consistent approach to preparation.

The more you do the easier it gets, and the more relaxed you are the better you think on your feet. But you have to do the homework. I think this also means that if you really cannot abide the thought of working without a safety net on broadcast media this may not be the thing for you – but do the media training anyway, just in case.

Principle 4: Once they know you and think you are reliable, they call you back and keep doing so.

Although I did participate in a finance committee session about 2011, my ‘breakthrough’ was winning a tender to advise the then Infrastructure and capital expenditure committee. This was a specific brief to work for about half a dozen sessions looking at the housing elements of the draft budget for the following financial year. I designed draft questions for the committee to ask those people I suggested they invite to give evidence. I worked closely with the chair and the clerk (the most important person in the committee system) and I led the drafting of the report that followed. You get to see the politicians up close and in private session and though you never actually open your mouth in public the MSPs do test you in terms of the arguments you draft. We also had a session with the relevant cabinet secretary who responded directly to our recommendations (she is now first minister). Ever since I have regularly been called back across a number of committees and even wrote a report for the welfare reform committee which led to a solo appearance defending the work on the bedroom tax to the whole committee.

I have given written/oral evidence to different committees in Scotland and once to the Scottish Affairs Committee in Westminster. Apart from one example when there was a mix up over the purpose of a session with the local government committee in the last Parliament, this has been a positive and worthwhile experience.

This autumn has been a particularly intense period of working with the political process, in part because it is a new Parliament and a new government. Since the middle of September, I have given evidence to three committees and I was invited to two ministerial roundtables. This has been a lot of work but rewarding too: new contacts and existing networks deepened, learning from listening in the sessions themselves, and ideas for new work developed. There have even been concrete ideas for academic papers. It is absolutely not a one-way street though – like in any other serious transaction you do need to give them what they expect and do your best to communicate clearly and simply (I say this in part because many people often do not do this).

Principle 5: there are mutual benefits to doing this kind of work.

In conclusion, and accepting that this not for everyone and that some will simply not ever want to do media work or this sort of parliamentary exchange – many will and I hope there are also academics who could benefit from it and would be good at it. For me it has been a hugely worthwhile experience. Learning to prepare effectively, making coherent points, thinking on your feet and be willing to say you don’t know the answer to a question – all things that one improves at with practice on the job. But media training does also give you pointers about how to focus responses within good practice guidelines. Like many of these type of activities a lot of what seems to make this work is about relationships, networks and developing credibility. I daresay one could be quite effective as an aloof academic but in order to make a long term contribution and get these wider benefits I think one should seek to view it as a long term project that has to be continuously worked at.

Of course, it is worth remembering that this is a two-way street – and politicians are very interested in ensuring the best academic expertise in their relevant policy areas. The Scottish Parliament is actively working with academics and seeking to develop longer-term relationships via formal engagement models.

Policy Scotland is assisting in this process – a process that benefits not just the academics and parliamentarians, but the country as a whole in helping to ensure the best possible outcomes in terms of the policies which impact all our lives.

It’s something I would urge all interested colleagues to consider getting involved in – and Policy Scotland will be happy to offer our expertise to ensure you get the most out of the process.