Engaging with the Policy-making and Scrutiny Process in Wales: How Does Research Get into the National Assembly for Wales?

Lauren Carter-Davies, Public Policy Institute for Wales

Lauren Carter-Davies, Public Policy Institute for Wales

In addition to our remit to support Welsh Government Ministers to identify their evidence needs and provide them with independent expert advice and analysis, the Public Policy Institute for Wales (PPIW) is trying to play a broader role in developing the ‘evidence ecosystem’ in Wales – the networks and channels through which evidence can inform policy and practice. We think that it’s important that Assembly Members who are involved in scrutinising policy and legislation also have access to authoritative independent policy experts.

The National Assembly for Wales is a democratically elected body with three main roles: representing the interests of Wales and its people, making laws for Wales, and holding the Welsh Government to account through policy scrutiny. In fulfilling these roles, the Assembly is a big consumer of research and is always looking to make links with independent sources of expertise. Specifically, the National Assembly for Wales Research Service provides impartial research and information to support Assembly Members and committees in fulfilling the scrutiny, legislative and representative functions of the Assembly. Providing an effective Research Service requires access to research from external organisations and individuals with knowledge and expertise in relevant subject areas.

Inspired by Sarah Foxen’s ‘Nine ways research gets into Parliament’, we decided to explore how research gets into the National Assembly for Wales in a bid to help external suppliers of research engage with the policy making and scrutiny process.  Why should external suppliers of research want to engage? Getting involved in these knowledge exchange processes may, over time, develop your reputation as a trusted voice, create a network of contacts and opportunities for further work, diversify your outputs and result in measurable real-world impact of your work. Ears pricked? We spoke to Research Service Staff and this is what we found.

How is research used in the National Assembly for Wales?

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The National Assembly for Wales’ Research Service is made up of subject specialists who offer direct in-house research support and advice on a broad range of subjects to Assembly Members. They do this via three main services;

  1. an enquiry service;
  2. briefing committees; and
  3. publishing pro-active publications.

As part of the enquiry service, Assembly Members can make requests for information and evidence relating to Assembly business and constituency work. These enquiries often require short turnaround answers (a matter of a few days or even at times a few hours) which limits the extent to which the Research Service staff can spend time searching for new sources of evidence or expertise.

In addition to the enquiry service, the Research Service publishes pro-active briefings on topics of relevance to Assembly Business. These briefings, include their blog, In Brief, a range of pro-active briefings on policy and legislation and constituent guides.  Research Service Staff often have more time to prepare these briefings than to answer enquiries.

The Research Service also provide briefings to support the Assembly’s scrutiny committees in their policy, legislation and financial scrutiny roles. In this instance, calls for evidence are often issued as part of the consultation process and individual experts may also be called on to offer briefings or to provide expert advice to committee members.

The Research Service also provides support to Assembly Members developing proposals for private Members’ legislation.

Each Assembly Member is also given a small allowance to utilise external expertise for a fixed period to deliver a specific piece of research via the AM Policy and Research Fund.

The Research Service go about responding to enquiries and preparing briefings in a variety of ways. Each subject specialist tries to keep abreast of the latest news and research in their area. They use their own, internal search engine to look through Plenary and committee records and papers and use the Assembly Library for access to catalogues of journals, information and monitoring services. They also have an expert database which experts and researchers can register on to be contacted when Assembly Members are in need of external expertise.

How can external researchers get involved, make their research accessible and expertise known?

Based on our conversations with Research Service staff, we suggest the following may help external researchers become more engaged with policy making and policy scrutiny processes in Wales.

  1. Get in touch and make your expertise known. Given short timescales, the Research Service staff often rely on pre-existing connections to find answers to research questions. By advertising your expertise, you increase the likelihood Research Service staff will turn to your research or make contact with you for advice. External researchers might make contact with the Research Service in a variety of ways:
  •  Sign up to the expert database and register as an external expert adviser for future possible short-term research contracts.
  • Make contact with the relevant Research Service specialist. The Research Service welcomes notification of publications which may be of interest to Assembly Members and research staff. Remember to send copies or ideally summaries of papers and do not assume Research Service and Committee staff will have access to, or time to look at, academic journals. It is also worth flagging up work before it has ended and giving an idea about the issues that are emerging and conclusions being reached before it gets published. Likewise, it is worth remembering that research that is not relevant right now may be applicable in the future so make yourself known ahead of time. The Research Service are also keen to hear about conferences, seminars or other networking events relevant to their specialisms.  Email addresses for all of the Research Service staff can be found at end of the Research Service Guide.
  1. Keep up to date with Assembly Member interests to be aware of times your research or expertise may be relevant. External researchers can keep abreast of this via:
  • Agendas and Business statements for Plenary meetings which are published in advance. If an upcoming debate is relevant to your subject area it might be worth contacting an Assembly Member to explain your research.
  • The Research Service’s blog, In Brief, which publishes topical articles on issues of interest to Assembly Members. The Research Service continually update their blog and publications with the latest information and so welcome comments on these. You can also sign up to alerts to new publications relevant to your subject area.
  • Keeping an eye on Assembly committee remits and registering an interest with the committee clerk if your work is relevant so as not to miss any calls for evidence.
  • In due course, the Welsh Government’s Programme for Government will give a good indicator of priorities and legislative programme over the next few years. Likewise, the Research Service’s publication ‘Key Issues for the Fifth Assembly’ sets out a selection of key issues likely to matter to Assembly Members in the Fifth Assembly.
  1. Make your research and expertise as accessible as possible to a non-academic audience. With multiple demands and short timescales the easier you can make it for Research Service staff to assess the relevance of your work and understand the key messages of your research the better. The Research Service staff we spoke to suggested that short, user-friendly summaries which identified a problem, discussed implications, solutions and linked findings to policy change were extremely useful. They also suggested that the experts they go back to are those who are able to offer broad expertise and knowledge of their field rather than simply findings from their own research. Practically speaking, research organisations could make their research accessible by:
  • Creating a single point of contact within your Institute or School whom Research Service Staff can liaise with to find out about sources of expertise and research.
  • Creating a newsletter or round up of recent or on-going research and adding the relevant Research Service specialist to your mailing list.
  1. Apply for a three month internship. The National Assembly for Wales in conjunction with the Research Councils offer an opportunity for PhD students to learn about the policy making process in Wales via an open competition run by the Research Councils. They typically take on five or six interns a year. It is currently exploring other opportunities for secondments and placements with the Research Service too so watch this space.

The National Assembly for Wales is keen to make better links with external suppliers of research. The Research Service is developing a new academic engagement plan that will be part of a wider engagement strategy for the Fifth Assembly.  It is exploring whether academic engagement initiatives used in other UK countries might work here in Wales. These include establishing a network of contacts across the universities of Wales as a first point of contact when seeking research expertise on an issue and establishing a ‘knowledge exchange seminar’ series so that academics can present their research findings to Assembly Members.  The Research Service is also well aware of the need for academics to be able to demonstrate the impact of their work as required by the REF and is keen to explore how it can help in providing meaningful feedback about impact. Overall, the resounding message from the Research Service appears to be ‘the door is open, come speak to us’.

Lauren Carter-Davies is a Research Officer at Public Policy Institute for Wales (PPIW).  Her work includes scoping assignments, assessing available evidence and helping to identify and recruit experts. This blog was first posted on the PPIW website. You can follow PPIW on twitter: @PPifW

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