Foreign Policy Essay

Five Tips for Policy Relevance

By Daniel Byman
Sunday, June 12, 2016, 10:27 AM

In the latest issue of Security Studies, my Georgetown colleague Matt Kroenig and I wrote a long essay on how academics might write more effectively for policy audiences (and yes, Lawfare gets a nice mention). Much of what we wrote is applicable to the broader analytic community, be it in the intelligence community, advocacy groups, or a top-ranked non-partisan independent think tank. The realistic goal is not that your opinion piece or intelligence assessment compels the ship of state to reverse course, but rather that your ideas are part of the broader discussion as policy is made.

The scholars Paul Avey and Michael Desch have done impressive work that makes for rather painful reading. They contend that, in general, policymakers ignore the work of scholars and that much of the fault lies with the analytic community. Problems range from impenetrable writing to pieces that arrive months or even years too late to make a difference. Matt and I sought to do our bit in remedying this.

One of our pieces of advice in our long essay is to write short pieces. So with that irony in mind, here are a few of my favorite tips:

1. Relevant Variables. Policymakers want to learn about opportunities before them, problems they face (or will face), and how they can move forward while avoiding the worst. So they are most interested in learning about what they can control rather than the immovable obstacles in their path. When looking at the sources of terrorism, for example, it is plausible to argue that the overall climate of ideas in the Muslim world matters, as do recruitment facilitators. Shaping the zeitgeist is tough for a policymaker, but facilitators can be monitored, arrested, or even killed. So while research on both is valuable, work on recruitment is likely to have more impact.

2. Go Early or Go Home. Too often outsiders wait for the president or a senior official to set policy before engaging. Why waste time, after all, writing on an issue if in the end the government itself does not embrace it? Such logic, however, misses that most of the true debate usually occurs before a proposal goes to senior officials for a decision. If you write early, you can insert new ideas into the process or shape opinions before bureaucratic lines are set. And you are not fighting the momentum generated when the president decides on a certain course. To be clear, you’ll also waste a lot of time shooting down trial balloons that probably would have gone nowhere.

3. Seize the Unexpected. Many policy disputes, such as whether to engage or contain China or how much to listen to European allies to counter Russia’s recent aggressions, fall along familiar lines. Outsiders can contribute to these disputes, but in general, change will be glacial in most cases, and it is rare that the outside contribution adds any value. Outside work has more influence when it looks at contingencies (what if Russia is aggressive in the Baltics, say) or analyzing sudden, unexpected events (9/11) where lines of analysis have not yet jelled.

4. Rectifying a Policy Failure. It is hard to change current policy once set, but it is not always impossible. One moment when outside analysis might matter is when the policy is doing poorly. In Washington, describing a policy as “failing” often means “this is not the policy I want.” I’ve argued that the United States should be more involved in Syria, but if the president’s goal is to minimize U.S. involvement in the Middle East, then his administration’s policy is not necessarily failing, despite the violence there. However, at times, a policy is failing on its own grounds – the United States in Iraq in 2005 comes to mind – and senior officials are open to new ideas. The Bush administration’s willingness to embrace a troop surge and associated strategy shift is a great example of when outside analyses were part of an important policy decision.

5. Join the Bureaucratic Warfare. Having an office within government with a mission that overlaps with the focus on the analysis makes it far more likely to be read – at the very least, so the office can dismiss it in an informed way should senior officials bring it up. Outside analyses gain influence when they engage in the struggles among (and within) bureaucracies. The validation of an outsider and the outsider’s ability to examine taboo subjects both benefit government audiences. Personal ties and other connections to different bureaucracies can increase the reach of a piece of analysis. Such engagement might seem too petty, but it can make all the difference.

Some scholars might do the equivalent of “general science” and not seek specific influence over policy – and such research remains vital. But our nation and the world would be better if scholarship can also inform policy.