Three ways to communicate more effectively with policymakers

By Paul Cairney and Richard Kwiatkowski

Use psychological insights to inform communication strategies

Policymakers cannot pay attention to all of the things for which they are responsible, or understand all of the information they use to make decisions. Like all people, there are limits on what information they can process (Baddeley, 2003; Cowan, 2001, 2010; Miller, 1956; Rock, 2008).

They must use short cuts to gather enough information to make decisions quickly: the ‘rational’, by pursuing clear goals and prioritizing certain kinds of information, and the ‘irrational’, by drawing on emotions, gut feelings, values, beliefs, habits, schemata, scripts, and what is familiar, to make decisions quickly. Unlike most people, they face unusually strong pressures on their cognition and emotion.

Policymakers need to gather information quickly and effectively, often in highly charged political atmospheres, so they develop heuristics to allow them to make what they believe to be good choices. Perhaps their solutions seem to be driven more by their values and emotions than a ‘rational’ analysis of the evidence, often because we hold them to a standard that no human can reach.

If so, and if they have high confidence in their heuristics, they will dismiss criticism from researchers as biased and naïve. Under those circumstances, we suggest that restating the need for ‘rational’ and ‘evidence-based policymaking’ is futile, naively ‘speaking truth to power’ counterproductive, and declaring ‘policy based evidence’ defeatist.

We use psychological insights to recommend a shift in strategy for advocates of the greater use of evidence in policy. The simple recommendation, to adapt to policymakers’ ‘fast thinking’ (Kahneman, 2011) rather than bombard them with evidence in the hope that they will get round to ‘slow thinking’, is already becoming established in evidence-policy studies. However, we provide a more sophisticated understanding of policymaker psychology, to help understand how people think and make decisions as individuals and as part of collective processes. It allows us to (a) combine many relevant psychological principles with policy studies to (b) provide several recommendations for actors seeking to maximise the impact of their evidence.

To ‘show our work’, we first summarise insights from policy studies already drawing on psychology to explain policy process dynamics, and identify key aspects of the psychology literature which show promising areas for future development.

Then, we emphasise the benefit of pragmatic strategies, to develop ways to respond positively to ‘irrational’ policymaking while recognising that the biases we ascribe to policymakers are present in ourselves and our own groups. Instead of bemoaning the irrationality of policymakers, let’s marvel at the heuristics they develop to make quick decisions despite uncertainty. Then, let’s think about how to respond effectively. Instead of identifying only the biases in our competitors, and masking academic examples of group-think, let’s reject our own imagined standards of high-information-led action. This more self-aware and humble approach will help us work more successfully with other actors.

On that basis, we provide three recommendations for actors trying to engage skilfully in the policy process:

  1. Tailor framing strategies to policymaker bias. If people are cognitive misers, minimise the cognitive burden of your presentation. If policymakers combine cognitive and emotive processes, combine facts with emotional appeals. If policymakers make quick choices based on their values and simple moral judgements, tell simple stories with a hero and moral. If policymakers reflect a ‘group emotion’, based on their membership of a coalition with firmly-held beliefs, frame new evidence to be consistent with those beliefs.
  2. Identify ‘windows of opportunity’ to influence individuals and processes. ‘Timing’ can refer to the right time to influence an individual, depending on their current way of thinking, or to act while political conditions are aligned.
  3. Adapt to real-world ‘dysfunctional’ organisations rather than waiting for an orderly process to appear. Form relationships in networks, coalitions, or organisations first, then supply challenging information second. To challenge without establishing trust may be counterproductive.

These tips are designed to produce effective, not manipulative, communicators. They help foster the clearer communication of important policy-relevant evidence, rather than imply that we should bend evidence to manipulate or trick politicians. We argue that it is pragmatic to work on the assumption that people’s beliefs are honestly held, and policymakers believe that their role is to serve a cause greater than themselves. To persuade them to change course requires showing simple respect and seeking ways to secure their trust, rather than simply ‘speaking truth to power’. Effective engagement requires skilful communication and good judgement as much as good evidence.


This is the introduction to our revised and resubmitted paper to the special issue of Palgrave Communications The politics of evidence-based policymaking: how can we maximise the use of evidence in policy? Please get in touch if you are interested in submitting a paper to the series.

Full paper: Cairney Kwiatkowski Palgrave Comms resubmission CLEAN 14.7.17

1 Comment

Filed under agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Psychology Based Policy Studies, public policy

One response to “Three ways to communicate more effectively with policymakers

  1. Pingback: How to design ‘maps’ for policymakers relying on their ‘internal compass’ | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

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