This post first appeared on Cambridge Policy Lab blog site 5 September 2017
by Colin Talbot
University-based public policy blog sites are growing in number in the UK. Why?
Partly, this is obviously driven by the so-called “impact” agenda – Universities proving the worth of their research to funding agencies, Government, the media and the public. Impact on public policy is an important part of “impact”.
So why blog sites? A University public policy blogsite offers two huge advantages.
Internally, within a University, it provides a way of quickly sharing policy-related research and developments in an easily digestible format. It is especially useful in developing early-career researchers who can share their work quickly and get feedback from more experienced colleagues outside of the normal, formal, University and academic channels.
Externally, it provides a platform to share – again quickly and accessibly – University public policy research with the wider world and provide ‘sign-posting’ to more in-depth engagement for practitioners and policymakers.
Blogs are essentially a publishing activity – providing quick, free and accessible outlets of key messages from public policy research.
Sometimes people think blogs are too much like newspaper publishing and individual posts being like yesterday’s newspaper – good for wrapping fish and chips but not much else. Experience with longer-term public policy blog posting at places like the LSE and Manchester have revealed this to be a mistaken assumption. Many blog posts have a “long tail” of viewings and even, sometimes, revivals of interest years later when the issues covered resurface in national policy and political debates (sometimes popping up in one of Kingdon’s “policy windows”). Moreover blogs are now increasingly being used in teaching and practitioner development programs.
So a University public policy blogsite offers not just contemporary and fast access to the latest policy-relevant research at the University, it also creates a knowledge-base of intellectual capital for the future.
TYPES OF BLOGSITE AND POSTS
There are many variants to academic public policy blogging now available. They include:
- the single academic’s personal blog (common in the USA)
- multi-author University blogs on a single policy area (the LSEs multiple policy-related blogsites are more like this)
- multi-author blogs on a range of public policy issues (e.g. Manchester)
- multi-author and multi-institutional blogsites (e.g. The Conversation).
(NB: We will be publishing some information on existing UK University sites shortly).
As the the Manchester Policy Blogs site’s headers shows, a generic public policy blogsite can be easily broken down into themes or substantive areas of interest. This is also more flexible than multiple ‘single issue’ sites as themes can be re-arranged from time to time within a single site.
The audience for University Public Policy Blogs should primarily be:
- within-University academics (to create new networks or enhance existing ones);
- wider academic communities;
- media commentators and analysts.
This means it’s primary aim should not be to rival ‘popular’ blogsites in terms of viewings, but to focus on a good penetration of the UK and international public policy academic and policymaker communities.
So, to be clear, we are talking about readerships in the hundreds and thousands, rather than larger, but the composition of that readership is crucial and we need to find ways to promote and assess it on a regular basis.
OTHER SOCIAL MEDIA
One lesson from existing blogsites is that are best not left in social media isolation. Manchester, for example, has set up a Twitter account linked to its site which now has over 10,000 followers. The LSE blogs use Twitter extensively to promote their posts. My own Twitter account has over 5,500 followers.
So consideration needs to be given to what other, linked, social media presence would be useful.
Within blogging generally the most common model for individual posts is the single or multi-author post of about 7-800 words.
In most cases it would seem sensible to stick mainly to this well-known format.
However, it might be worth also thinking about some variants to add interest and value to your site.
The first of these – which Manchester has used very successfully – is to have a series of linked posts either by single author(s) developing a theme or, and this works really well, several different authors offering slightly different perspectives.
(Manchester did this on the Manchester Devolution debate and subsequently published the collection in print and on-line – the latter getting tens of thousands of downloads.)
If well planned and commissioned this can be very effective – both for internal debate and external projection.
The second possibility is to have the occasional ‘long-read’ – something more like a feature article in a magazine (around 2,000 words).
This might be especially useful as vehicle for senior academics or practitioners who want to expand on a subject (or offer a cut down version of a longer argument published in book or academic article form)?
Another possibility is to stick to the common (800 word) format but have posts written in a more journalistic style – especially with quotations from experts. My most successful blog post so far took this format and on the LSE website got over 250,000 views (on EU27 academics in the UK after Brexit).
Where the institution has several experts in an area this might be a quick way of gathering and publicizing their research and expertise?
The blogsite could also be used as a means of publicizing new research or events quickly and simply – using what we can call ‘twogs’ (between a tweet and a blog) in a very short – 2-300 words – post.
In terms of frequency posts need to be regular, well spaced and timed, and of consistently high quality.
This suggests starting slowly with perhaps between 3-5 posts a week during the optimum ‘policy windows’ – i.e. roughly following the UK political cycle – but not ceasing publication entirely during quieter periods.
Obviously in the main authors should be drawn from University academics and affiliates.
Special emphasis should be placed on encouraging early-career researchers (PhDs and Post-Docs) – experience shows they are all too willing to get engaged.
However, it is also important to try and get ‘big names’ writing – at least occasionally and even if it means a certain amount of ‘help’ (e.g. some ghost writing).
Eliciting 3-5 posts a week initially should not be too difficult for most Universities. (The experience at Manchester was that the new blogsite was inundated with offers very quickly).
Some help will be necessary to produce blog posts of the right length (academics frequently over-write), style and quality.
This can be done in several ways:
- Editorial help (either in-house or by freelancers) who can help authors shape their material
- Training – usually a half-day practical event for 8-12 people at a time (provided by journalists)
- Ghost-writing – sometimes research reports can be summarized in blog format by a ghost-writer for a busy academic.
For a discussion of the journey from academic to blog-style writing see my personal account here.
EDITORIAL GUIDELINES AND CONTROLS
Strong Editorial Guidelines are crucial to maintain quality and to avoid disputes. Fortunately there are several successful models already available (LSE, Manchester, etc) that can be easily adapted to any University.
These need to be enforced by a strong mandate to an Editor-in-Chief who has the final say. Experience shows disputes are infrequent, but when they do happen they need a senior person to make a clear and final decision.
There will also probably be some technical and ‘brand’ issues to resolve with your University. We have had run-ins with what we call the “brand police” or the “comms commissariat” and there’s sometimes a certain nervousness amongst some senior University managers about all this. Mixed wit a degree of ignorance – one very senior manager I had to deal with admitted to never having read a blog post.
So setting out down this road can be challenging. But is can be done, and very successfully as places like the LSE and Manchester have demonstrated.
If you want any help with developing this sort of activity at your University please get in touch – firstname.lastname@example.org