As we all head into academic conference season, here is some food for thought with a guest post by Steve Morgan. Enjoy. Livio.
“Meetings with meaning: a summary of advice…”
by Steve Morgan, University of British Columbia
Health policy researchers attend a lot of conferences, symposia, and meetings. Some organize a lot of events. I fall into both categories and have the scars (and airline status) to prove it.
I am an Associate Director at the UBC Centre for Health Services and Policy Research (CHSPR), which hosts an annual policy conference on varying “hot topics” in health policy; I lead Canada’s Pharmaceutical Policy Research Collaboration (PPRC), which frequently hosts focused knowledge exchange events for policy makers; and I am President of the Canadian Association for Health Services and Policy Research (CAHSPR), which hosts Canada’s largest and broad-based annual conference on health services and health policy. I’ve therefore organized – and am responsible for continuing to organize – a lot of conferences.
Amidst planning for the Pharmacare 2020 symposium, I decided to poll 45 Canadian leaders in health policy and health services research. (I shamelessly drew on contacts from various advisory boards I serve on, given that members of such boards are quite well regarded by me and by my peers.) A total of 42 of 45 people responded to my “2-second query: best health policy conference(s) ever?”
I had clearly touched a nerve because a vast majority of the respondents agreed the motivating premise of my query: many conferences just come and go without much impact. Indeed, most of the respondents said they could not name one conference that was directly responsible for changing policy or policy debates. I should also note, however, that other respondents enthusiastically described various events that seemed to be significant “moments” in policy processes and/or debates. Moreover, all respondents offered hope and advice for people who would want to hold an event with such effect. Below is a summary of that advice.
“If you want to affect policy, go narrow, deep, small, and have a follow-up strategy. If you want to influence minds, go wide, look for charisma + insight, and see what happens.” – Steven Lewis
- Impact is rare. A vast majority of conferences (large or small) have little or no direct impact on policy or policy debates. Most, of course, are held as part of long-range processes designed to build relationships and promote information sharing. Such processes can have cumulative effects on policy processes and discourse that may not be attributable to one specific event.
- Impact is unpredictable. Conferences that have an impact tend to do so for reasons not planned by the organizers. Here are, however, things that can be done to increase the probability that an event will have impact on policy or policy debates.
- Timing matters. External forces typically dictate when a topic is ripe. Related windows of opportunity for influence are often fleeting.
To influence policy processes and outcomes (direct influence)
· The event should be focused on a substantive issue about which there is genuine uncertainty regarding what to do and/or how best to do it.
- Decision makers should be involved in event planning and committed to taking follow-up action.
- Participants should be small in number, chosen with purpose, and trustworthy. Invitees may or may not include all major stakeholders depending on needs for trust versus buy-in.
- The meeting should occur in an environment of trust that makes participants feel safe to explore all ideas without prejudice or precedent. This can be achieved through deliberate selection of delegates, repeated interactions/meetings of the same core group of participants, and/or the use of the Chatham House rule.
- As much as possible, the best available evidence should be on the table and explored in-depth by participants. Summaries of relevant evidence may be developed and circulated in advance.
- The meeting should be guided by a credible and skilled chair/moderator/facilitator.
- Technologies might be employed to anonymously poll participants to gauge levels of agreement on and/or support for specific issues.
- There should be a plan for post-event information sharing and action.
To influence the way people think about policy issues (indirect influence)
- The event should focus on an issue that needs clarity: illumination, exploration and analysis. The issue should be important and unresolved, perhaps controversial.
- The program should include speakers who are engaging, provocative, and able to integrate and communicate ideas across disciplines/fields/cultures. These skills may be more important than exact “fit” with a specific logic that planners might otherwise seek for a conference program.
- A range of event sizes can be appropriate; however, larger events that expose people to a wider variety of ideas and perspectives may have greater impact.
- There should be significant diversity among participants. Diversity should be sought not only in terms of professional role – academics, policy makers, health professionals, citizen groups, media, etc. – but also in terms of age, sex, ethnicity and other relevant socio-demographics.
- The event should create a welcoming environment for all participants. It should be structured in a way that provides opportunities to interact and to connect with people, to share ideas, and to build relationships.
- Technologies might be employed to gather real-time comments from participants and/or to anonymously poll participants on specific questions.
- There should be a plan for post-event actions and communications. Consideration should be given to special issues of journals and/or editorials in newspapers to increase impact.