The Duck of Minerva

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Building Policy Networks

June 27, 2018

This post comes from James Goldgeier, professor of international relations at American University, Visiting Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and a co-director of the Bridging the Gap project. You can follow him on Twitter @JimGoldgeier.

Earlier this month, we held our annual Bridging the Gap (BtG) International Policy Summer Institute (IPSI) for faculty and postdocs who want to be more publicly engaged and policy relevant. Scholars who want to pursue this type of work need to keep in mind a point Duke professor and BtG co-director Bruce Jentleson always makes: Faculty members, particularly those on the tenure-track, should view these efforts as “in addition to” not “instead of” their core academic research. Any professor who wants to bridge the gap successfully needs to develop the scholarly expertise that provides credibility among policy and public audiences.

One issue that we discuss at length in our programs is how to build networks among the Washington, D.C., policy community. Your job doesn’t have to be located in DC to do this, but you have to learn how to navigate the different think tank and policy communities if you want to extend your reach. (Parallel principles apply for scholars interested in building networks in their state and local communities.) Networking is a long-term endeavor that never ends if you want to remain actively engaged in the debates. Here are three of the key takeaways from nearly fifteen years of conversations with policy insiders and influencers during our BtG training programs. 

Understand the different types of policy audiences

All policy audiences will be interested in your work because of your academic expertise. But there are very different policy audiences in D.C. who are looking for a different balance of analysis and prescription:

  • The intelligence community provides information to the rest of the government, so if you have a great understanding of a set of issues but aren’t comfortable with policy recommendations that may be a great audience for your work. The folks who develop the Global Trends assessments, for example, actively seek input from academics.
  • Staffers on Capitol Hill who are putting together briefings or looking for experts to provide testimony represent another audience that is often more analytically oriented.
  • Meanwhile, staff in the Executive Branch and at many international organizations and non-governmental organizations are typically focused more on policy recommendations that come out of your core analysis.

Keep in mind that policy audiences (and op-ed page editors) are always very interested in scholars who have recently done fieldwork. If you’ve just come back from three months in Egypt, the desk officer at State is going to be eager for your insights and any recommendations you might have.

How do you make connections?

Prepare to cold call (or email). Think tank scholars and policymakers in D.C. expect as part of their jobs to hear from academics who want to share their findings or even just get coffee to introduce themselves and their work. Remember, the worst thing that happens is someone says no or ignores you. But then you are no worse off than you were before you tried.

If you are outside of D.C. and are applying for external funding for a project, you might want to build in some funds to take a short trip to D.C. to brief members of the policy community after you go to the field or publish your findings. (Many foundations now expect grant recipients to demonstrate the broader impact of their work beyond academic debates.) You want to be able to boil down your main takeaways — whether from a trip or a recent article — that you can deliver in a short meeting. Introductory meetings can be the start of a long-term relationship.

Sara Plana and Rachel Tecott wrote recently on their takeaways from the Future Strategy Forum they organized in May at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. I learned a lot from being there and met some people I did not know before. A number of other similar workshops intentionally bring together scholars and practitioners around specific set of issues and questions. These offer a great networking opportunity – as well as being of substantive interest!

You’re in it for the long haul

As much as you might like to write an op-ed or post something on the Duck of Minerva that changes the world overnight, that isn’t usually the way the world works. You do need to learn how to take themes from your books and academic articles and make them accessible through an op-ed, a blog post, or even a tweet. Those short pieces are going to get more attention from a broader policy and public audience than what you write for fellow academics. But be active, not passive. Send your pieces around, even to folks in the policy community you don’t know but you believe would be interested. You should be using what you write as part of your networking strategy.

If you interview policymakers for an article or book, send them a copy with a note thanking them for their help. Maybe even see if you can meet them again to talk about what you learned while working on the project. If you have important things to say, you will be saying them over and over again for a long time as you become known for particular findings and insights.

As you move forward in your career, look for opportunities to affiliate with a think tank. Start by seeing if you can join a project or have a mentor help you get invited to speak at a workshop. Many of these institutions have non-resident fellows who come to D.C. (or wherever the think tank is located) for short trips, and these affiliations can broaden your network in Washington and beyond. Think tanks are also typically much better than universities at creating visibility for their scholars, thereby providing further opportunities for networking.

Finally, remember that much of the work to reach policy audiences is invisible and behind-the-scenes. Some of the best advocates in policy circles are doing their work quietly over long periods of time, such as the late John Steinbruner. John was a leader in academia and the think-tank world and played a key role in the development of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program, among other important initiatives. John never sought the limelight; he just wanted to make the world a safer place. And he did.

I look forward to the cold calls and emails that result from this piece!

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Bridging the Gap promotes scholarly contributions to public debate and decision making on global challenges and U.S. foreign policy. BtG equips professors and doctoral students with the skills they need to produce influential policy-relevant research and theoretically grounded policy work. They also spearhead cutting-edge research on problems of concrete importance to governments, think tanks, international institutions, non-governmental organizations, and global firms. Within the academy, BtG is driving changes in university culture and processes designed to incentivize public and policy engagement.