‘The Fellowship has developed my understanding of the policy landscape’

Alex Lloyd, a British Psychological Society member and Research Fellow at University College London, talks about his experience on the BPS Parliamentary Fellowship.

How did you get involved on the Fellowship?

I’d been aware of the BPS Parliamentary Fellowship for a couple of years after seeing it advertised on Twitter, and it was always an opportunity that interested me. 

I’ve always tried to make findings of my research relevant for policymakers, and the fellowship at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) seemed like the perfect opportunity to learn more about how research influences policy. I applied unsuccessfully in 2019/2020 but was successful in 2020/2021, so persistence paid off! 

When I spoke to the advisor who was managing my fellowship, they raised the option of being seconded to a select committee, rather than being based at POST. Most fellowships tend to take place at POST, where the focus is to develop a briefing on a scientific topic for policymakers, known internally as ‘POSTnotes’.

Instead I opted to be placed within a Committee as I was interested in learning about the role these bodies have within Parliament. My own placement took place in the Health and Social Care Committee, which scrutinises the Government’s progress on policies in health and social care. 

What did your role in the Health and Social Care committee involve? 

My role was to help support the Expert Panel’s work in evaluating the Government’s progress on their commitments in the area of mental health.

I was responsible for synthesising evidence about the Government’s progress on their commitments to mental health, which the Panel used to reach their ratings about how well the Government had done. These could be rated as either ‘Outstanding’, ‘Good’, ‘Requires Improvement’ or ‘Inadequate’. 

While I was there, the Panel evaluated nine commitments within the areas of workforce, children and young people’s mental health, adult common mental illness and adult severe mental illness. Overall, the Panel found that the Government’s progress so far required further improvement on their commitments to mental health. 

Once this rating had been agreed, I then helped to write the report using academic evidence and submissions from stakeholders, such as charities who support individuals living with a mental health condition. The report was published by the committee and submitted to the Government, who are afterwards required to respond to the report within three months.  

What did you learn through the fellowship? Was there anything that surprised you?

I definitely learned a huge amount on my time in POST!

Some of the biggest lessons were about how mental health policies shape the delivery of our national mental health services. The Government makes a lot of commitments to expanding and improving mental health services, and they use these to allocate funding to the NHS. The final decision about how the money is used is made by groups of services known as Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs), which can lead to variability across the country in terms of which mental health services are prioritised at any time.

Understanding the complex relationship between Government commitments, funding allocation and the role of CCGs was something I’d not previously known, and the experience made my understanding of the mental health services much richer. 

Something that was an unexpected lesson was how to produce work to a tight timeline. There wasn’t always a lot of time to write a report and yet there was a huge amount of work to get done before it was ready for publication. The Fellowship helped me to compartmentalise tasks and focus on what were most pressing issues. It also helped to adapt my writing from an academic style to a one more tailored towards policymakers. 

Most surprising was the location of a broom cupboard underneath the Church in the Houses of Parliament. As I learned, this is where suffragette Emily Davison hid overnight so that she could list her address as the House of Commons as a protest for women’s voting rights!

Looking ahead, how do you plan to use the experience in your future psychology career?

At present I’m hoping to continue a career in academia and will be starting a new role in January where I’ll be evaluating the outcomes of a new mental health intervention. 

The Fellowship has been extremely helpful in developing my understanding of the policy landscape that mental health services operate in. By better understanding policy priorities in mental health, I hope to draw links between the outcomes of research and how findings might fit within services that are trying to make positive progress on commitments. 

For example, one mental health commitment is that all schools in England should provide mental health support for students. The finding of the research that I will be working on over the next few years might be useful to these stakeholders. Hopefully it’ll help shape policy when deciding how to most effectively introduce mental health support in schools. 

Seeing how Select Committees utilise evidence from academics also helped me to understand how psychologists can contribute to inquiries being run by the Committees. For example, Committees will often make public calls for evidence, which academics can contribute to if they have relevant expertise. I hope to continue engaging with the Health and Social Care Committee in this way. Say, if they launch inquiries relevant to my research. 

From what you’ve said about engaging with policymakers, how do you think academics in psychology can use their expert knowledge to help shape policy decisions?

I believe having an awareness of the different parts of Parliament is a good first step to better engaging with policymakers. Within Parliament there is the House of Commons, House of Lords, Select Committees, National Audit Office, POST, All Party Parliamentary Groups, and more. There’s many it can be quite confusing to get your head around! 

Once you understand the different bodies and how they work together, you can more easily think about how you want to engage with policymakers and how to target your research towards to maximise impact. Identifying Members of Parliament who have a particular interest in your research field (whether it be digital technology, mental health or health behaviours) would be a good way of targeting your work to the right policy makers.

With regards to using knowledge and expertise to help shape policy decisions, I believe it’s best to keep updated on the work of Parliamentary bodies. There are several ways for academics to use their expertise to shape decision-making in this respect. For example, the Health and Social Care Committee have a Twitter account where they announce new enquiries and calls for evidence regularly – if you see something relevant to your research area, don’t be afraid to submit evidence that may contribute to their work! 

Similarly, The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology often call for evidence relating to their briefings, so keeping up to date with their work would be an excellent first step towards being able to contribute material that can help change policy decisions.

-       Alex Lloyd is a Research Fellow at UCL and a PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London. His research work examines how adolescents explore and use feedback from decisions to learn about their surroundings. Alongside his academic posts, Alex is also a trustee for two youth work charities: Peer Power and Dragon Hall Trust. 

For more information, we recommend Alex’s TED talk: What if we could do youth justice better? 

Kesi Mahendran, incoming Chair of the British Psychological Society's Political Psychology Section, adds: The Society’s POST internship runs every year and this year the deadline is 28 February. It's a great opportunity for a PhD student who's in their final year or in their penultimate year, to work with the UK Parliament. You can work with all party parliamentary committees. You can work with select committees and with MPs using your psychological skills and your psychological knowledge to work with putting evidence into the policy and political process.

I used to work in the government before I became an academic, and I really recommend it for those people out there that enjoy the political and policy end of the psychological work we do. 

Find out more, and read about the experiences of some of the previous BPS POST Fellows:

https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-34/october-2021/five-minutes-alison-lacey

https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-33/march-2020/post-briefing-note-autism

https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/briefing-parliamentarians

https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-14/edition-5/students-awards-post-0

https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-30/september-2017/briefing-lawmakers

https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-23/edition-3/society

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