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Health policy lessons from COVID-19

Article discussing what policy advisers learned from COVID-19 pandemic
Picture of a mundi map in aquarela with colourful figures in the shape of viral particles spread over the map
© COG-Train

The best way to learn how to engage with policymakers is to listen to the experiences of scientists who have worked closely with them and from policymakers themselves. Read below the answers from experienced professionals.

What are the main challenges in communicating with policymakers?

In countries where political crises are not uncommon and institutions are weak, a big challenge is the constant change of policymakers, authorities and civil servants. Researchers might describe detailed scientific information when engaging with policymakers, which might not be useful to the policymaker as they are more concerned actionable research that can translated into policy; so knowledge transfer has to be strengthened between the two sectors.

Another big challenge is that in several countries in Latin America, there is no formal system for scientific advising (this is no formal and regular communication channels between academia and policymakers), which has resulted in a lack of trust between these groups. As a result, in countries where this is an issue, engagement with policymakers has to be approached differently.

The biggest challenge the scientists and public health professionals face is establishing effective communication with authorities because it also depends on them. This means that even if you are willing to collaborate, and policymakers don’t accept suggestions, communication won’t be possible. For that reason, authorities need to understand they can ask for advice from researchers, especially when they lack the necessary expertise within their authority.

There are key challenges in engaging with policy stakeholders:

  • Difficulty in getting approvals, and administrative burdens
  • Stakeholders’ limited capacity and infrastructure to collaborate in research
  • Different priorities than researchers
  • High turnover among staff at stakeholder institutions
  • Stakeholder time constraints

What are the key learnings from interactions with policymakers during the pandemic?

As evidence changes over time, conveying how this may affect policy decisions is crucial. It’s important to communicate that the information you shared with them is the most current evidence but can change over time, and the advice might need to be revised periodically.

Lessons learnt from the management of pandemic crises in advisory boards include:

  • The strongest engagements were those where the scientists were able to provide rapid technical advice to policy stakeholders with whom they already had an existing relationship.
  • Bringing together multiple stakeholders for a single meeting was very challenging because stakeholders were over-committed.
  • Stakeholders need engagement and advice during an emergency in a very fast timeframe – which provides a considerable burden for researchers in the emergency response.
  • Stakeholders preferred to engage in short, online meetings.

Clarity around the benefits and costs of implementing a policy can help communications. This should be balanced with discussions about the costs and consequences of not action on the evidence.

It’s helpful if interactions with policymakers are part of wider/general collaboration framework. However, many government organisations will require signing Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs), collaboration agreements or some sort of formal link.

What is the advice to other researchers in communicating with policymakers?

Policy engagement is a communication exercise, and it is most effective when it is two-way. This means that researchers need to provide opportunities for policy stakeholders to engage with them and be willing to listen and respond.

Policy stakeholders tend to ask to be involved or informed about research at very early stages. They do not want to dictate the research agenda, but they do want to be sure that research is designed in ways that can produce useful outcomes for policy. The best way to do this is to find ways to build consultation into research throughout the research lifecycle.

Partnering with civil society organisations and advocacy groups to work on the specific subject is recommended. This can help have a stronger message delivery mechanism. Identifying local champions can boost the delivery of these messages.

Another helpful way to maintain the engagement is to establish a structure to feed into policymaking (e.g. establish annual meetings or spaces for regular dialogue with policymakers and government committees).

As a final piece of advice, try to give to the stakeholders key points of action to work with. Try not to load them with vast amounts of evidence, summarise findings and suggest solutions instead.

Further reading

Ten tips for scientists to connect science and policymaking

Top 20 things scientists need to know about policymaking

Do you agree with this advice? What else might you add? Please share in the comments.

© COG-Train
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