Friday, 22 June 2018

Public health isn’t good politics (part 2)

Knowledge exchange lessons from the spotlight event at the University of Sunderland

Posted by Peter van der Graaf, AskFuse Research Manager, Teesside University and John Mooney, Senior Lecturer, University of Sunderland

In our last blog, we reported on the 4th Fuse international conference on knowledge exchange in Vancouver, B.C. Provocative speakers explained that public health is, at best a hard sell to policy makers and at worst impossible to influence decision making. Luckily, they also presented short cuts for making it more likely that public health evidence would be heard by policy makers.

Sharon Hodgson, Shadow Minister for Public Health, speaking
at the Spotlight on Public Health event in Sunderland
These challenges and the potential short cuts were clearly present at the University of Sunderland spotlight event that we attended, which aimed to increase the visibility of public health research at the university.

Sharon Hodgson, the Shadow Minister for Public Health, opened the afternoon session with a passionate plea for introducing a minimum unit price for alcohol in England, following the example of Scotland. However, she made it clear that the Scottish choice for a 50p unit price would be a hard sell to both her voters and the Labour party. Labour colleagues simply dismissed the policy as a ‘tax on the poor’ and voters would feel the pinch on their already austerity squeezed household budget.

This ignited a lively debate with researchers in the room, who highlighted the research evidence that is available in favour of a 50p unit price. While statistical models consistently demonstrate that this would have the biggest impact on reducing alcohol related harm, such as liver disease, the Shadow Minister was concerned with how the price selected might impact on her voters. Specifically, she felt it was more important that increased costs to people living in more deprived communities were not dismissed, but instead presented as a health improvement incentive.

Having visited various supermarkets in her constituency to check the prices of different types of alcohol in order to work out the impact of different MUP limits, her conclusions sided with the views of the voters and Labour peers: 50p would hit all the different types of alcohol and not just the cheap ciders and therefore penalised not just the heavy drinkers but also the moderate drinkers in deprived communities. Instead, she argued for a 40p unit price, which would mostly affect the price of cheap ciders, and therefore target only the problem drinkers and not the other drinkers in her constituency. What counted as the most important evidence for the Shadow Minister was quite different from what the researchers in the room perceived as the best evidence to inform policy.

When an audience participant also tried to make the economic case by suggesting that the 50p tax would generate a better return for the Government that could be used to finance alcohol addiction services, the Shadow Minister remained unconvinced.

What did start to sway her was another suggestion to change the narrative from a ‘tax on the poor’ (which might be used as a stick by Conservative party members to beat their Labour colleagues), to a ‘tax for the wellbeing of all’. This narrative framed the 50p MUP as a policy that would affect all walks of life and could encourage a change in drinking cultures among all ages and classes, with the money raised being reinvested across a range of policy areas.

Shanon Hodgson agreed that this might make for an ‘easier sell’ and perhaps more importantly serve as the basis of a future health legacy that she could leave for her voters. By reframing the narrative from a small group problem (problem drinkers in deprived communities) to an emotive public issue of damaging drinking cultures, better policy and voter engagement might be secured.

Paul Cairney presenting at the 4th Fuse International
Conference on Knowledge Exchange in Public Health  
The evidence that she really needed were stories to demonstrate meaningful (personal) health gains and cultural change across different sectors of society. This requires a new type of evidence. It does not mean dismissing academic research and all the rigorous evidence it generates, but it does require a careful consideration of the policy system and process in which it is used and a willingness to adapt the messages and narrative to that context and the other types of evidence that are prevalent in that context. This is neatly summarised in the top tips from political science offered by Paul Cairney in his presentation at the 4th international Fuse conference:
  1. Find out where the action is (‘actors’) 
  2. Learn the rules (‘institutions’) 
  3. Learn the language/ currency (‘ideas’) 
  4. Build trust and form alliances (‘networks’) 
  5. Be entrepreneurs, exploit ‘windows of opportunity’
Public health researchers operating as political entrepreneurs might be a hard sell to academic institutions but they have a world to win when trying to get evidence into decision making where it matters and creates impact.

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