Sealey Associates

Academic-policy engagement: supporting what works

Higher Education Innovation and Collaboration

The academic-policy landscape is a rapidly changing one. Researchers are increasingly expected to try to achieve policy impact. For some institutions and academics the big question is how to start. For others the issue might be more about prioritising – where might you best focus your investment, energy and expertise?

Sealey Associates have been working with universities, researchers and cross-sector institutions to respond to these challenges. We help our clients understand and optimise how academics and policymakers can work together in a productive way. We enable researchers to navigate the policy environment, and support universities to develop academic-policy partnerships that deliver long term value. Our collaborations with the ESRC, UKRI, Universities Policy Engagement Network, CAPE and individual universities have enabled us to both deepen and apply our expertise in this field.

Applying learning and expertise

“Sealey Associates have a detailed and nuanced understanding of the boundaries between higher education and government and I wholeheartedly recommend their work”.


Significant investments have been made in recent years to support academic policy engagement. Yet Oliver et al (2021)’s research shows that ‘often new initiatives fail to draw on this existing learning’. Networks and projects such as Capabilities in Academic Policy Engagement (CAPE), Transforming Evidence and the University Policy Engagement Network (UPEN) seek to counter this and build our understanding of ‘what works’. At Sealey Associates we both keep pace with these developments and draw on our own practical experience, and learning through the projects we deliver via a process of ongoing evaluation.

We were recently commissioned by UPEN to scope their future business model through consultation with members and networked organisations (ESRC, AHRC, Advancing Research Impact in Society, Research Impact Canada, Association of Research Managers and Administrators, Government Office for Science and the UK Parliament KE Unit). This work has given us a rich and timely insight into the challenges and opportunities facing universities as they develop their strategies for academic policy engagement. In addition, UPEN’s reports on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion and Opening Up Parliament have informed our training and consultancy services. We are excited to see how the new UPEN Chair, Vice-Chairs and broader community build on their great success and the analysis in our report as they continue to help the sector learn.

Like UPEN, CAPE is creating a step change in the sector’s knowledge about academic policy engagement. At Sealey Associates we are pleased to have collaborated with CAPE, as Associates to their training programme, supporting the development of two training workstreams, Training for Policy Professionals and Training for University Partners. Learning from CAPE has informed the ways we support academics more broadly, from their insights on Government Areas of Research Interest, to their reflections on the importance of knowledge exchange events.

Recognising policy contexts

“Sealey Associates provided professional, expert and timely support scoping policy engagement capacity and capability locally, nationally and internationally. Bridget Sealey [provided] invaluable, independent critique and analysis, with clear, well thought through recommendations on […] how to strengthen and move forward”.


Researchers need to be able to recognise the different types of policy contexts and the opportunities each of them represents. Hopkins et al (2021) have called for initiatives and training to ‘help researchers identify relevant policymakers [and] frame problems in ways that are convincing or persuasive’. Through our work we support institutions and researchers to map and identify the right policy stakeholders to engage, and tailor their approaches to them. We also seek to ensure that these interventions encourage sustainable peer to peer networks to emerge.

We understand the breadth of academic policy engagement opportunities presented within the UK and beyond. We carried out a detailed policy engagement review for the Open University looking at opportunities across the four nations in which they operate, and we are currently supporting a Welsh university to map its own academic policy engagement capabilities. At a local level we are working with creative practice researchers at Plymouth University to enhance local government understanding of community engagement with the Levelling Up agenda. The work of CAPE has highlighted the untapped potential of regional policy engagement, and we look forward to seeing what learning emerges from the ESRC’s investment in Local Policy Innovation Partnerships.

Priorities and opportunities

“Bridget and her team were very attuned to the needs of both Universities and the policy-making sector and the opportunities which currently exist to help researchers make best use of their research outcomes to help inform policy-making and research impact”.


In order to take advantage of the opportunities presented by multiple policy contexts, institutions are looking to develop a more granular understanding of their own capabilities. To offer universities an insight into potential priorities, we’ve undertaken projects mapping research strengths and their relevance to local, national and international policy areas and policy makers. Our approach to these ‘policy mappings’ has been informed by methods developed by Dunlop (2018) in her analysis of REF 2014 Politics Impact Case Studies.

For the University of Central Lancashire, for example, we analysed their 2014 REF submission, and complemented this with a series of semi-structured interviews, focus groups and desk review to build understanding of how the university’s research connected to Government Areas of Research Interests, regional policy interests, Select Committees and UN Sustainable Development Goals. We made recommendations for areas of development, such as expanding relationships with targeted government departments and MPs, as well as applying for funding opportunities to extend policy impacts in particular geographies.

Tailored support for individuals

“It was great to get this expert mentoring. I learnt a lot and it was nice to have allocated time to focus on this”.

(Participant, Policy Engagement Coaching Programme, University of Central Lancashire)

To achieve sustainable policy engagement it is essential to focus support on institutional and individual needs, and avoid a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Moreover, as Walker (2019) recommends, learning from others, as well as from your own successes, is key to achieving impact. To this end, we’ve undertaken immersive policy coaching and mentoring programmes to encourage this approach to learning, and to equip researchers with the skills, expertise and networks to develop policy engaged research.

Our tailored programmes enable participants to benefit from interaction with a range of experts, to embed policy engagement knowledge within their research, and to create targeted outputs relevant to their area of expertise. Feedback from these programmes has been hugely positive and participants have reported benefits including growth in understanding of potential policy beneficiaries and ways to reach them, and increased confidence to engage with policy stakeholders.

Enabling co-development and networks

“It’s actually pretty amazing what you can do when you put a group of academics in a room for a day to answer a policy question […]. Super useful to have advice and feedback from those in policy too”.


Our flexible support services enable researchers and policy stakeholders to co-develop solutions. We are currently delivering the ESRC’s pilot Professional Development Programme for its Postdoctoral Fellows. As part of the programme we worked with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) and [email protected] to develop a policy challenge workshop focused on the Levelling Up agenda.

During the workshop, a panel of UK and international policy experts, including senior civil servants from DLUHC and the Cabinet Office Policy Lab, worked alongside the Fellows to offer them live feedback on their developing ideas. In creating these initiatives we fostered a supportive environment that generates learning opportunities both for the researchers and for the policy stakeholders themselves. As a result of our workshop the policy experts are now part of the Fellows’ ongoing collaborative networks.

To find out more

For more information about Sealey Associates and to read case studies about some of these activities, visit our website. You can follow @BridgetSealey on Twitter and LinkedIn. If you are interested in finding out how we could help you or your organisation, do get in touch with the team.