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Dr Kate Woodthorpe and policy engagement

With a focus on end-of-life care, death and dying, and via an IPR sabbatical, Kate's research has generated policy impacts in Government and in Parliament.

Kate Woodthorpe next to a web of graphics demonstrating his research and engagement activities
Dr Kate Woodthorpe has been actively involved in policy engagement

Dr Kate Woodthrope is a Reader in the Department of Social and Policy Sciences and Director of the University's Centre for Death & Society. She was an adviser to a Select Committee and has a broad range of experiences engaging policymakers in her research.

Tell us about your research and expertise

"I am a sociologist and I’ve done lots of work on funerals, funeral costs, and poverty. 10 years ago, I did some work on the Social Fund, with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), in terms of a particular benefit that people might be able to access when someone has died to help with funeral costs. I’m now doing work which touches on grave reuse, as well as welfare provisions after death. In policy terms, what unifies all my work is that it is about the role and responsibilities of the state in terms of the provision for citizens, spaces and service when people have died."

How is your work relevant to policymakers?

"It’s very relevant in that there are some very big, very profound questions about how you treat your citizens at the end of their life — when does citizenship end, along with the rights and responsibilities of the state that come with that? There are also some big financial implications when people die too — people might not be able to work, they may not be able to afford funerals. What is their safety net?

"It is important to consider what policymakers can do to provide that safety net, while making it as cost efficient, effective, and targeted as possible. These big life events are profoundly linked to poverty and the risk is that if you don’t put in preventative measures, more people will tip into poverty or go further into poverty when someone dies.

"It is the issue of being preventative versus responsive. You don’t want it to get to crisis point because then it affects other parts of the system, such as health, housing and communities. So, if you can manage it and you can keep people going as they experience the turbulence that comes when someone dies, you give them a fighting chance."

For further information see: What is policy engagement?

How have you engaged policy professionals in your research?

"There have been different levels of engagement at different parts of my career. Now I am 20 years in, I have a track record and I find it easier to send policy professionals emails showing them what I have done. But, in the early days, there were a lot of gatekeepers. I had to build up relationships with organisations that weren’t necessarily policymakers, but were working with policymakers so that they could refer me, or act as an intermediary.

"It's from getting my name out there that I think I was invited to be an adviser to a Select Committee in 2015/16, looking at welfare provisions after bereavement. That then led to further work with the Department for Work & Pensions, and eventually the Law Commission. So, you have to work with policymakers and put yourself in front of them, but there’s also all the other people who are working with them. It’s important not to discount those individuals and organisations as they will be your advocates to get you in the room."

Also see: Government and policy engagement; Parliament and policy engagement; Think tanks, advocacy groups, business and charities; Select Committees and APPGs

Have you worked with the IPR on policy engagement?

"I did a sabbatical with the IPR in 2017. I reached out to Prof Nick Pearce with a piece of research I wanted to do on funeral policy, not necessarily looking for a sabbatical. The sabbatical gave me the opportunity to contact the DWP to say that I was released from my everyday work, and I could use some of the time I had to work with them. They took me up on this offer.

"While on sabbatical at the IPR for six months, I produced an IPR briefing which included a collection of thought pieces from all the major organisations in my areas of research interest, which centred around Death, Dying and Devolution. This was a really good networking opportunity for me too as it allowed me to collaborate with all these individuals in order to collate the document.

"To launch the policy briefing for this, we had a roundtable and invited a Government Minister to speak as well as several other speakers. This also attracted quite a lot of press coverage – it led on BBC Breakfast and Radio 4 on the day - and that definitely served as a bit of a foot-up in my policy engagement work. I’m really pleased I did it!"

What methods of engagement have been most successful?

"I think, first and foremost, its about being very visible and being careful not to turn opportunities down. It’s important to maintain your profile even when you are quite well-established — you need to continue popping up in policymakers’ work.

For example, I recently wrote a piece for The Conversation, and I emailed two organisations as a courtesy to say: I’ve written this piece, it mentions you in it, it would be great if you could take a look at it. And both organisations came back to me saying let’s have a catch up soon. Even if those catch ups don’t happen, you’ve remained on their radar and that’s equally important."

Also see: Stakeholder mapping; Communicating research for policy audiences

What has happened as a result?

"One thing that has come out of this process was that it led to a REF impact case study. This was good because it was, in a way, a validation that my research did have currency and impact. I’ve also been invited to deliver presentations or attend different practitioner events. However, it’s not always about the outcomes; the process is important in its own right.

"With that in mind, on a more personal note, it has definitely been the happiest part of my job. I couldn’t believe it when I was sitting in on a Select Committee as an advisor, in Westminster, at the Houses of Parliament. It was just off Westminster Hall, in a room full of wooden panels, and there was Frank Field MP (former) leading the discussion.

"I never thought I’d be so lucky as to have insight and access into that world, let alone influence. I find it really invigorating to be talking to people from different sectors, and intellectually stimulating. That’s been really important for me. I think it is easy for academics to become jaded or cynical when they feel their publications are read by a handful of people and so on, but through all these opportunities I have witnessed how academics do have something to contribute, and people do want to listen."

What have you learnt about policy engagement?

"I always assumed that evidence would speak for itself, but that’s not the case. It is just as important about how you communicate that evidence. Publishing papers doesn’t mean anything if you’re not building networks and circulating your work to stakeholders and policy professionals. In a way, it is a translation exercise to present your research in a way that is digestible to policymakers.

"Also, it’s about not being afraid to recirculate something that you published a few years ago if it is a theme which is coming back into the public arena. You shouldn’t just discount a piece of work because it was from several years ago if it still has relevance. People aren’t just going to stumble across it, so you need to be proactive and do a bit of self-promotion of that work."

Also see: Communicating research for policy audiences

What advice would you give to others?

  1. Be courteous but confident, don’t be afraid to be visible and put yourself out there.
  2. Make use of those who engage with policymakers and their allied institutions and organisations, such as the media, on a regular basis. They are well versed in how to approach people, the language to use, and how to tap into the political agendas.
  3. Make sure that everything you share is backed up by research. I think academics sometimes run the risk of becoming journalists or commentators when working in policy spheres. For your own credibility, it is important that you are sharing what the literature and the evidence says because that’s what policymakers are looking for in an academic contribution.
‘I couldn’t believe it when I was sitting in on a Select Committee as an advisor, in Westminster, at the Houses of Parliament.’
Dr Kate Woodthrope Department of Social and Policy Sciences

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