By Marc Geddes
I have been Communications Officer for the PSA Specialist Group on Parliaments for almost two years, and I have loved it. It has allowed me to engage with a range of academics, researchers, students and practitioners to help disseminate their research whilst also promoting the study of parliaments and legislatures across the UK. The main way that I have sought to do this is through our website, and especially through our blogs, which cover topical issues or overviews of legislatures. But why does this even matter? Why should parliamentary and legislative scholars be blogging? There are at least three reasons, and each relates to the audience that we are trying to engage: the public, practitioners, and academics.
1. Engaging the public: promoting the study of parliaments
It is perhaps a little old hat by now to emphasise the importance of engaging the public with research. Even so, our research exists for a purpose. It may not be done for economic or policy impact alone, and can be vital for cultural or societal enrichment. Spreading and disseminating research on literature or the arts is therefore a great way to actually engage the public in our academic work.
This applies to parliamentary and legislative scholars. According to the Hansard Society, 52% of the UK public claim to know at least ‘a fair amount’ about Parliament; 34% claim to know ‘not very much’. This tells us that there is scope for parliamentary scholars to reach out to the public and improve their knowledge of how the institution works and why it matters. Being able to write blogs on the topic is one route through which we can help strengthen the public’s understanding of legislatures.
This is especially important at a time when the UK is undergoing significant constitutional change, whether through devolution or as Britain negotiates its exit from the European Union.
2. Engaging practitioners: improving the effectiveness of parliaments
In a recent research project with my colleagues Katharine Dommett and Brenton Prosser, we looked at how academics can engage with Parliament. One participant (a practitioner working in the House of Commons) told us that blogs ‘have been an absolute god-send’ and ‘revolutionsed my working life’ because it has allowed her direct access to research in a quick and timely manner. Blogs can be especially useful because parliamentary staff are looking for ‘straight-forward language, very uncomplicated, very little jargon’. Specifically, blogs help to overcome three accessibility issues:
- Most academic research is published in academic journals that are hidden behind paywalls. Practitioners are reluctant to pay £20 or more for a journal article, especially in context of financial resource-limitations in the public sector. Policy-makers do not have automatic access to journals (though I believe they should). A blog allows practitioners direct access to research findings, and, if they want to find out more, can then contact the author.
- Academic research takes time, especially to guarantee rigour. Unfortunately, this peer review process can mean that some research, once published, is no longer relevant for practitioners who need to be responsive to events as they unfold. One way to overcome this problem is to publish interim findings or short briefing notes. Blogs are a great way to push ideas out there for practitioners. It can actually enhance the peer review process, too – see below.
- Blogs are short and to the point. Practitioners are time-poor, and so a short briefing note or blog allows practitioners quick and clear access to research. Blogs are written in a more relaxed style and often jargon-free (or should be!). This makes it easier for practitioners to use academic research in their own work.
Evidencing impact is not necessarily easy, but if you want to make an impact with your research on Parliament (or the policy worlds more generally), you should definitely start blogging about your research.
3. Engaging academics: improving our research on parliaments
Blogging is not only useful for reaching out to the public and practitioners, but can actually enhance academic environments or, as some have put it, function like a global common room. Blogging allows us to talk to each other, and in doing so, it can allow us to share our ideas and promote them. It can even spark new collaborations and interdisciplinary research. But it can also spark debates between academics, especially if the blog is a provocative one. This is to be encouraged because it means that academics will be forced to defend their ideas or challenge others to do so. It ensures critical analysis with the ultimate aim of strengthening our research.
This also links to a more personal reason for blogging. Through the process of writing and debate, we have to put our ideas into words. It helps us to clarify ideas that are otherwise stuck in our heads. As Pat Thomson points out, blogging allows us to (among other things): establish writing as a routine; allows you to experiment with writing styles; keeps you to the point; and improve the confidence of your writing and your research. So even if you do not believe that your research can engage the public or practitioners, it can help the community of other academics working on parliaments and legislatures, and it can help you to overcome writer’s block. This ultimately leads to better research.
I wholeheartedly hope that blogging continues amongst parliamentary and legislative scholars. The PSA Specialist Group on Parliaments is a great forum for this to happen, and the SG always welcomes new contributions to our blog. If you are interested – don’t hesitate and contact us with a blog idea, a draft, or even something that you want to be re-blogged from elsewhere.