What scientists should know about policy-makers

Approximate reading time: 5 minutes 20 seconds

For the past 18 years, people have been asking me if working with policy-makers was any different from working with ‘regular people‘ That’s a hard question to answer for, as long as I remember, I’ve been working with people that were far from being ‘regular’.

My first professional experience was in a legal office and working with lawyers was not what you would call working with regular people or at least this is not what lawyers think about themselves.

My next job was at a company responsible for organizing international sports events. People I have been meeting every day were the ones you see in your TV and read about in tabloids. According to common standards, they were everything but ‘regular people’.

In fact, having worked in the past with all sorts of celebrities I don’t find working with policy-makers particularly different. There are, however, some specific issues linked to this profession that you should be aware of if you want to communicate to policy-makers, as they will influence the process of your science communication.

There are three categories of constraints you should take into consideration:

1) Confidence

Facts are not necessary as objective as you want to see them. Scientists argue about facts all the time and so do policy-makers. What scientists tend to miss in this context is that policy-makers don’t necessarily need so called ‘unbiased information’. What they need instead is information that is reliable and that they can use to back up their point. It does not mean that they will intentionally ignore information that does not match their agendas but their focus is not where you think it is.

What you also shouldn’t forget is that lobbyists and interests groups constantly surround policy-makers and flood them with easily digestible information. In these circumstances, policy-makers create a circle of people they rely on in their work to provide them with necessary information. The most important is that they can have confidence in them and the information they provide. Once they establish such a circle they rarely actively go beyond it.

As a result, in order to be able to communicate with policy-makers you need to build a relationship based on trust. It’s not easy and it doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, you may not be able to do it at all if you don’t approach them through gatekeepers they have already confidence in. In case of policy-makers those gatekeepers are often their advisors, assistants and administration officials. They keep you away from policy-makers as this is an unwritten part of their job description but they can also become your best allies. Consider targeting them with your message instead of aiming directly at policy-makers.


Whatever you decide to do in order to reach policy-makers remember about these golden rules that help to build trust over time:

  • Never promise more than you can actually give. Underpromise rather than raise expectations that you cannot meet.
  • Never hide possible pitfalls or counterarguments to your research but offer the best options to respond to them instead.
  • Avoid making the impression that what you want to do is politics rather than providing scientific information.

2) Timing

There are several time constraints when it comes to politics. Policy-making is based on terms so one can never be entirely sure if their term of office will be prolonged after the next elections. Therefore, policy-makers need to plan their projects within the time given to them at the specific moment. They may have plans for the future but those plans can be easily turned upside down if the elections don’t bring the expected result. Within the given time they need to follow the legislative procedures that have a very specific time frame and concrete steps that cannot be overcome.

Policy-makers are also increasingly busy, as their everyday work is getting ever more hectic. Unless you fit into their daily routine, you cannot count on more than 5 minutes of their attention and it will rarely be undivided.

In this context, here are the main issues you need to keep in mind:

  • The most valuable information will be wasted if it comes too late for the ongoing legislative process (until a next possibility arises).
  • Policy-makers will always prioritize information that has immediate value for their work over information that can potentially be valuable in a long-term perspective.
  • When faced with a possibility to speak to policy-makers make sure you have a clear message ready and go straight to the point.


3) Presentation

The way you present your research to policy-makers is even more important than the way you present it to other types of audience. This is because policy-makers are very practical people working under enormous pressure of time.

Therefore, they want to get from you information that is:

  • written in a simple jargon-free and lay-people-friendly language,
  • explained in short sentences,
  • preferable presented as a picture or an infographic,
  • in bullet points,
  • presented as stories,
  • with the most important aspects highlighted.

Policy-makers need information that they can reuse in contact with their colleagues, constituents or journalists.

In some cases, they will also prefer personal contact and oral briefing to other types of communication so make sure you have three versions of your speech ready – a 1-minute, a 5-minute and a 15-minute version that covers all the main issues you want to convey. Be practical, underline what is important and why.

No need to say you must be easy to find so make sure your work and your contact details are easily available through various channels both online and as a traditional business card.

If you are not discouraged and still want to communicate to policy-makers make sure you identify their needs in advance and respond to those needs in your communication process instead of focusing on pursuing your own agenda. Policy-makers have some common features, the knowledge of which can make it easier for you to work with them but they will also differ one from another as any other human being. Each of them will have their own preferred topics they specialize in that will not always be the ones covered by their committees. They will also have their preferred way of working so the best for you would be to know their individual preferences.

What will definitely distinguish policy-makers from ‘regular people’ is that they are on the frontline. Media and regular citizens carefully scrutinize all their actions and never hesitate to make them accountable. All their mistakes are much more visible and have much more serious consequences than mistakes made by a regular person such as myself. In their role they need to consider many facts and issues you may not be aware of so remember that your research may be important for them only if it fits a bigger picture. Always try to come to policy-makers with a practical solution to their problems, a solution that can possibly have influence across policy areas and interest groups. If your message can help policy-makers to carry on their duties then your chances for success increase.