1. Insights from policy analysis texts
Most texts in this series relate communication to understanding your audience (or client) and the political context. Your audience has limited attention or time to consider problems. They may have a good antennae for the political feasibility of any solution, but less knowledge of (or interest in) the technical details. In that context, your aim is to help them treat the problem as worthy of their energy (e.g. as urgent and important) and the solution as doable. Examples include:
- Bardach: communicating with a client requires coherence, clarity, brevity, and minimal jargon.
- Dunn: argumentation involves defining the size and urgency of a problem, assessing the claims made for each solution, synthesising information from many sources into a concise and coherent summary, and tailoring reports to your audience.
- Smith: your audience makes a quick judgement on whether or not to read your analysis. Ask yourself questions including: how do I frame the problem to make it relevant, what should my audience learn, and how does each solution relate to what has been done before? Maximise interest by keeping communication concise, polite, and tailored to a policymaker’s values and interests.
2. Insights from studies of policymaker psychology
These insights emerged from the study of bounded rationality: policymakers do not have the time, resources, or cognitive ability to consider all information, possibilities, solutions, or consequences of their actions. They use two types of informational shortcut associated with concepts such as cognition and emotion, thinking ‘fast and slow’, ‘fast and frugal heuristics’, or, if you like more provocative terms:
- ‘Rational’ shortcuts. Goal-oriented reasoning based on prioritizing trusted sources of information.
- ‘Irrational’ shortcuts. Emotional thinking, or thought fuelled by gut feelings, deeply held beliefs, or habits.
We can use such distinctions to examine the role of evidence-informed communication, to reduce:
- Uncertainty, or a lack of policy-relevant knowledge. Focus on generating ‘good’ evidence and concise communication as you collate and synthesise information.
- Ambiguity, or the ability to entertain more than one interpretation of a policy problem. Focus on argumentation and framing as you try to maximise attention to (a) one way of defining a problem, and (b) your preferred solution.
Many policy theories describe the latter, in which actors: combine facts with emotional appeals, appeal to people who share their beliefs, tell stories to appeal to the biases of their audience, and exploit dominant ways of thinking or social stereotypes to generate attention and support. These possibilities produce ethical dilemmas for policy analysts.
3. Insights from studies of complex policymaking environments
None of this advice matters if it is untethered from reality.
Policy analysis texts focus on political reality to note that even a perfectly communicated solution is worthless if technically feasible but politically unfeasible.
For example, they help us rethink the ‘know your audience’ mantra by:
Identifying a tendency for most policy to be processed in policy communities or subsystems:
- Elected policymakers prioritise some issues and ignore the rest, and pay attention to some information and ignore the rest.
- Note the importance of ‘serial’ and ‘parallel’ processing: policymakers may process issues one at a time, but political systems process many issues in many different venues (or multiple ‘centres’).
- This dynamic produces many different audiences spread across policymaking systems: blurring boundaries between those who make and influence policy; following their own rules, norms, or dominant ways to understand problems (and assumptions about whose framing and whose knowledge matters); and, responding to different policy conditions or events (which might create different windows of opportunity for action).
Gone are the mythical days of a small number of analysts communicating to a single core executive (and of the heroic researcher changing the world by speaking truth to power). Instead, we have many analysts engaging with many centres, creating a need to not only (a) tailor arguments to different audiences, but also (b) develop wider analytical skills (such as to foster collaboration and the use of ‘design principles’).
How to communicate effectively with policymakers
In that context, we argue that effective communication requires analysts to:
1. Understand your audience and tailor your response (using insights from psychology)
2. Identify ‘windows of opportunity’ for influence (while noting that these windows are outside of anyone’s control)
3. Engage with real world policymaking rather than waiting for a ‘rational’ and orderly process to appear (using insights from policy studies).