321 – Communicating economics to policy makers

When it comes to communicating research results to policy makers, economists have some advantages over other disciplines. But economists commonly make a range of mistakes when trying to communicate to policy makers.

Included amongst the advantages that economists have are that economics can be used to clarify the pro’s and cons of different decision options, and this is exactly what policy makers need in many cases.

Secondly, a good economic analysis is holistic, bringing together all, or at least most, of the relevant elements, including social, biological, physical, financial, behavioural elements, accounting for risk and uncertainty.

Thirdly, economics tries to assess outcomes from the perspective of society as a whole, rather than a particular interest group, so it can be seen as more balanced and independent than some other disciplines.

On the other hand, economists often squander these advantages by making basic communication mistakes. Too often they fail to cut out the technical jargon that is meaningless and perhaps annoying to their audience. They focus too much on abstruse technical details of their analysis, rather than focusing on why it is important and what the results mean. They explain things in abstract, conceptual terms, rather than giving examples and telling stories to make things tangible and real. In short, they are often not tuned into, or don’t understand, the perceptions and needs of their policy-maker audience.

In July I attended the annual meeting of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, in Atlanta, Georgia. One of the highlights for me was the presidential address by new president Keith Coble from Mississippi State University. His address was on “Relevant and/or Elegant Economics”, but mainly on making sure economics is relevant. I got a nice surprise when, about half way through the talk, he started talking positively about an old paper of mine on communicating economics to policy makers (Pannell 2004).

In that paper, I reported results from a small survey, including responses from economists who work in the policy world, senior bureaucrats, past or present politicians and a former ministerial adviser.

The most strongly emphasised advice provided by these people was to understand the policy maker’s situation and perspective.

Other messages included to be practical and pragmatic, to be persistent, to understand the importance of timing, to establish networks in order to build support, to not tell your target audience that they are wrong, and to keep your communication brief and clear.

There are many other useful pieces of advice in the Pannell (2004) paper, so have a read.

Further reading

Pannell, D.J. (2004). Effectively communicating economics to policy makers. Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics 48(3), 535-555. AgEcon SearchJournal web page * IDEAS page

Gibson, F.L., Rogers, A.A., Smith, A.D.M., Roberts, A., Possingham, H., McCarthy, M. and Pannell, D.J., (2017). Factors influencing the use of decision support tools in the development and design of conservation policy, Environmental Science and Policy 70(1): 1-8. Journal web page * Pre-publication version * IDEAS page

4 Comments

  • Lars Brink
    20 August, 2019 - 2:40 am | link

    David’s 2004 article in the AJARE really is a gem. And it is open access, to boot. I benefitted from it a lot for my own little piece in 2012 on making ag econ research relevant for policy advice. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/cjag.12001
    Thanks, David!

  • Louise Barton
    20 August, 2019 - 4:34 pm | link

    Dear Dave,
    As always a good read, and thanks for sharing some of your gain insights from the conference you attended in the US.

    I think that it would be fair to say that other disciplines (including my own, Soil Science) fail to take time to understand the perspectives of policy makers.

    Seeking to understand in the first instance, helps when you are wanting to be understood.

    Louise

  • wilfrid legg
    21 August, 2019 - 10:19 pm | link

    A very timely blog referencing the excellent 2004 article. There is also increasing attention to the need to “make economics relevant” especially among younger economists. The challenge to effectiverly communicate to policy (and other decision) makers is all the more urgent in the era of (non-refereed) postings on social media, fake news and distrust of experts.

    The 2018 Presidential Address by Professor John Davis (Belfast) to the Agricultural Economics Society entitled “Communicating Economic Concepts and Research in a Challenging Environment” also deals with these issues.

    https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1477-9552.12300

    Wilfrid

    • 22 August, 2019 - 6:38 am | link

      Many thanks Wilfrid. John’s paper is a very good complement to my one.

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