[This article was originally published in the On Think Tanks 2018 Annual Review.]
The University of Nottingham has embarked on an ambitious programme to better showcase its high-quality research. In 2017 the University launched its Research Vision, focusing its mission on delivering exceptional research that transforms lives in the local community, the UK and across the world. This included the establishment of six ‘beacons of excellence’ – trans-disciplinary teams to research global challenges, building on areas that have had a track-record of success.
Ensuring that research transforms lives, however, also means ensuring it has impact – and in particular that it effectively informs policy choices. The University has therefore also established its Institute for Policy and Engagement to work with academics in the six beacons and elsewhere in the University to engage with external audiences and achieve policy impact. One of the Institute’s key tasks is to develop academics’ knowledge and understanding of how policy influence can be achieved.
To support this, OTT Consulting is working with the University to design and deliver a training programme to help staff communicate better and to tell a more compelling story about their cutting-edge research.
‘Given the time it often takes to achieve policy impact, it is critical that both researchers and members of the [University] administrative team understand how to approach it,’ explained Chris Sims, University of Nottingham’s Head of Global Policy Impact, in early client discussions.
To maximise this skill building work, we agreed to experiment with a few different approaches to teaching. We incorporated plenty of after-action reviews and more formal evaluations to ensure that we were learning as much as possible from the process and responding to feedback throughout.
Step one involved running a set of sessions at the 2018 edition of Nottingham Engaged, an annual policy engagement conference that aims to share experiences and best practices across the University and beyond. These face-to-face workshops, covering audience mapping, messaging, digital communications and events, allowed participants to get a flavour of the different elements of research communications.
Step two was much more comprehensive and remains ongoing. A cohort of 25 staff are currently participating in a ‘policy academy’, which involves eight online sessions on specific communications topics such as how to write a policy brief and how to develop a communications plan. The sessions include live discussions as well as personal tasks to help hone skills.
The final step, which is currently under development and will be delivered later this year, involves getting think tank leaders to share their policy and public engagement experience with a group of senior University staff. These more intimate sessions will not only explore the benefits of engagement, but will look at what is actually involved in achieving impact, and how best to structure teams to get results.
We hope to use this mixed method approach with other clients going forward.