07498 560 288 mark@showrunnercomms.com

My go-to comfy pair of work shoes had gone mouldy under the stairs during the pandemic. And so it was that I had painful blisters from my new shoes by the time I made it into St Peter’s square, where the armed police officers, bright young thinktank bods touting flyers, and of course an eclectic assortment of protestors, soon started to make it feel all nicely familiar again.

The Conservatives were back in town and I was back (sans official pass) working the fringe circuit, over-caffeinating, over-buffeting, getting my politics and policy fix. And, I have to say, loving every moment of being back in the close proximity mixer of live discussions with real people. 

My Showrunner Communications colleague Mark Fuller recently described party conference fringes as ‘trade shows for policy ideas’, and noted that universities are often absent. Mark also made a very good point during one of our regular chats that what goes on around the fringes of party conferences happens week in, week out around Westminster. This tends to make them more of an occasion and opportunity for those universities not located within an easy hop of WC1.

When I started at Policy@Manchester – the University of Manchester’s now sector-leading policy engagement unit – back in 2013, the fact the city annually played host to the gatherings of either the ruling party or opposition jumped out as one of the very obvious low-hanging opportunities we were missing.

This was something we quickly started to better exploit, and it was impressive to see Policy@Manchester’s line-up of no less than eight events over two days this year in Manchester, partnering with shrewd, well-connected policy-world operators like the Social Market Foundation and Centre for Cities, but also regional allies such as Northern Powerhouse Partnership and Northern Health Science Alliance. They did pretty much the same at the Labour Conference in Brighton.

The two Sheffield universities took advantage of the close proximity to hold events, while I noted a presence from Warwick University, as I have done previously, and the London School of Economics. Manchester Metropolitan experts (full disclosure, I also used to work for them), were also on a  couple of panels but seemed less active than usual – perhaps due to their excellent thinktank Metropolis currently being on hiatus.

There will also no doubt have been a fair few university public affairs professionals (I bumped into two very good ones, one local, one from down south) and their Vice-Chancellors working the conference, softly engaging and influencing in line with their respective interests and priorities.

But aside from the Policy@Manchester masterclass and a smattering of other academic guests on panels – some there by dint of organisers needing an academic voice on the panel I’d suggest, rather than by anything more strategic – I couldn’t help but reflect on missed opportunities. Missed chances for a wider cohort of expert researchers to shape some very live policy issues – Net Zero, Technology and Innovation, Communities and Place, Transport, Health – with the sort of high-quality, evidence-based insight and knowledge that our universities produce in bucketloads.

Away from the  high-level Higher Education advocacy that goes on involving representative groups like UUK and MillionPlus, it’s not that easy for ‘new entrants’ from the HE world to simply come along and put on slick, focused policy events that people will turn up to – at least, not without opening the cheque book.

Established thinktanks and media outlets will offer you the chance to part with many thousands of pounds for a spot on an impressive panel with a guaranteed audience, where they do all the legwork and the academic expert just rocks up. It’s certainly one approach, although it can appear rather transactional and doesn’t always feel very authentic.

This apparent hefty financial barrier may be why we don’t see more expert university researchers  – especially those without well-resourced, dedicated policy engagement units or expert centres behind them – at the party conferences. But in line with how the sector operates around HE policy through UUK and the other mission groups, I’ve wondered why there isn’t also a more collective approach to research engagement and impact at major policy events. 

Could members of the excellent Universities Policy Engagement Network (UPEN) have come together to put resources and comms into a high-profile Net Zero HE policy fringe ahead of COP26, for example? Could the N8 or GW4 flex their muscles more at events like this? Both are groups of powerful, well-resourced, research-intensive institutions, after all.

Universities do truly world-leading research and have a voice that needs to be heard in policymaking  – to put, as Manchester Met Chancellor and Metropolis patron Lord Mandelson once said, a bit of ‘grit into the machine’.

But academics and professional colleagues alike can lack the experience, confidence and the right profile and contacts to fill a room full of policy and political types.

When you put yourself out there, it’s great if it comes off, but embarrassing if it doesn’t. I should know; I remember one memorable early failure at Manchester, where we tried to go it alone inside the secure zone with a swish room and eye-wateringly costly catering, and a great panel – which ultimately outnumbered the audience. It’s painful even thinking about it.

If you’re looking for a way in, it makes sense to work together, either with experienced policy operators in a true win-win collaboration (as per Policy@Manchester), or with other organisations to share the load, risk and cost – whether that’s with other regional universities, with those with shared/complementary research interests, or with other regional stakeholders such as Combined Authorities, Chambers of Commerce or LEPs.

Of course, getting knowledgeable and senior people together behind a table, inviting a Minister and laying on a spread (this is generally expected by your audience, by the way) isn’t the only avenue open to universities with something important and timely to impart into the policy machine.

Building awareness of your expertise and engaging stakeholders in Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool or Brighton (delete as applicable), can be done by working receptions and dinners and starting conversations with key people, getting your hand up and asking good questions at other people’s events, and by grabbing (figuratively) a politician and/or their gatekeepers after an event and getting contact details for follow-ups. (But remember they are very unlikely to accept your latest briefing or publication to take away, no matter how good it is).

And of course, it’s not all one-way; going to party conference fringe events that relate to your areas of expertise and policy interests will help build intelligence and deepen your understanding of how policymakers are approaching an issue, making your future tactics for engagement more nuanced and effective.

To have real policy impact for your research, though, party conference engagement has got to be part of a longer-term strategy to engage key policy actors to achieve an outcome – not just with the politicians but the civil and public servants working hard behind the scenes to translate big ideas and rhetoric into concrete strategies and action.

You can spend a lot of time, money and energy on party conference policy engagement, and it has its place – but what you do before and after, which tends to be much more unglamorous, matters just as much.

Without clear objectives and a focused longer-term strategy,  showy one-off policy engagement efforts will soon fade from the memory of those who matter. Just like a fuzzy head from a particularly convivial (read: unlimited free bar) conference party.

Alex Waddington, Senior Associate 

With many years’ experience of running policy engagement programmes at leading universities, Alex plays a key role in Showrunner’s work to help academics achieve policy impact. We’d love to talk about how we could help academics at your institution to achieve a strong policy impact with their work. Please do get in touch with Mark via mark@showrunnercomms.com or give him a call on 07498 560 288.