How can we embed psychology in public policy?

We hear from members of the British Psychological Society’s Policy Team…

08 April 2019

As the Society’s Director of Policy, I’m absolutely thrilled to be introducing the newly expanded Policy Team to our members. The new Advisors who have joined in 2019 will work closely with the existing members of the team to deliver a step change in the level of impact that psychology will have on policy making.

Any government serious about improving the lives of the public and understanding why intractable social problems persist must ensure that their policies and interventions are based on an in-depth understanding of human behaviour. To that end, a core objective of the Policy Team is to ensure that high-quality psychological evidence is routinely placed at heart of government.  

We do this in a number of ways. It may be bringing together relevant expertise from across the discipline to develop policy reports and position papers, responding to a consultation or holding events in Parliament to share our evidence directly with those who hold the power to make change. It may be as simple of sharing the name of a relevant expert with a parliamentary researcher.

Policy influencing is not a straightforward or one-off process. To be most effective we need to focus concerted attention on a small number of priorities and we need a range of tactics. The newly expanded team means each Advisor can now work with members on developing and delivering specific policy change objectives. The new skills they have brought will complement those of the existing team, to enable us to develop creative and effective strategies.

The work of the five Policy Advisors ‘with portfolio’ is closely integrated with the work of our Head of Research and Impact, Dr Lisa Morrison Coulthard, who is leading a strategy to inspire and showcase excellence and impact in psychological research. Our policy work also goes hand in hand with our professional practice work, led by Hannah Farndon, who is working to both shape and respond to the changing environment for practitioner psychologists, and to deliver guidance to support them to deliver the highest quality of service.

The BPS is committed to getting the voice of psychologists heard in the corridors of power and seats around the tables that matter. At the same time, we will get more psychological evidence in the inboxes and on the desks of those with influence. We will do this to ultimately deliver change for our members and the people and communities we work with.

Watch this space…

Kathryn Scott, Director of Policy [pictured]
[email protected]

A more personalised psychological approach
Sabrina Kamayah, Senior Policy Advisor

Having studied psychology in my first degree, I feel like I have come back home. It is a brilliant time to join the Society, and be a part of its strategic journey to grow and embed the voice of psychologists and psychology in the public and political space. We have an active role in shaping health and care, by advancing the use of psychological evidence for the benefit of the public.

Mental health has always been an important area for me, on both a personal and professional level. To underpin this, I have always approached my policy-making through the lens of equality and human rights. I value the integral role psychology plays within the health and care system, which can often be overshadowed by the biomedical model. It is time to move away from a dominant focus on the medicalised approach towards a more personalised psychological approach to care, with a focus on wellbeing.

The Society membership has a wealth of psychologists representing different therapeutic modalities. Our team must use this expertise by connecting people… I plan to join networks and build relationships with mental health leads across government, NHS England and other important stakeholders. Meetings on the horizon include government-working groups on suicide and self-harm, the integration of mental health and physical health, and on children and young people’s mental health.

Developing the Society’s position on prevention in advance of the Government’s Green Paper on Prevention, and working in collaboration with psychologists, and national stakeholders to create our vision for a psychologically informed workforce, are just some of the areas I will be working on. Psychologists are all about prevention, and have an integral role in the workforce to meet a significant skills and knowledge gap in the NHS.

How do you think the public policy team and psychologists should work together going forward? I would love to hear your views.

Stay at the crease
Andrew Baldwin, Policy Advisor (Work)

A decade ago I worked in Westminster for a Member of Parliament who was either excellent or terrible, depending on which constituents you spoke with.  

Every morning, I would sift through the mountain of correspondence sent to the Parliamentary office from lobby groups, charities and businesses, each one arguing vociferously that their issue was the most important issue facing the nation. I sorted it into three piles – recycle, keep and action.

When considering how best to influence public policy I invariably return to this memory, because for any policy promotion to be effective it absolutely has to pass the researcher test. In the two seconds it takes to assess your report will the MP’s staff see the evidence, the recommendations and the passion you put into making it happen, or will they just see another contender for the recycling bin? How do you increase the likelihood of that researcher considering your report for longer?  

To answer this, remember that policymaking is a remarkably slow process – recommendations can take years before they’re picked up by Governments. I liken it to test cricket – attempting to slog every delivery to the boundary will not work… it will just lead to more reports in the recycling bin. Instead, we need to think long term – stay at the crease, play for time and identify the types of delivery you’re going to hit.

To that end I have been working with the Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology to narrow down the literally thousands of issues related to the four fields of practice, work and the environment, the individual, training and the organisation. From that, we can identify overarching themes to realistically influence on (the deliveries we can hit), examples of which could include neurodiverse conditions, career development or wellbeing issues.

That’s not to say we won’t take opportunities outside of the overarching themes (a cheeky single here and there). Capitalising on an opportunity when it presents itself, and being in a position to react to events, is vital. Part of my role will be to spot these and work with you to make the most of them.

For me to advocate, though, I need your help. Please do get in touch with ideas and suggestions. Working together we can embed psychology in public policy, maintaining a consistent, credible and transparent approach. Just be warned it may take more than a couple of innings!

Do what we can, even if we cannot do much
Nic Murray, Policy Advisor (Social Justice)

Working in mental health policy for several years and taking part in debate and discussion on figures and evidence, I’m sometimes reminded of a cartoon from the Spanish newspaper El País. In it a woman is exclaiming ‘But there are people behind those statistics’, to which a man remarks ‘well they need to get out of there’. Thankfully I’ve never encountered a policy maker this ruthless, but I am minded that we always need to think about the people behind any figures and evidence, and look beyond this to consider their lived experiences and contexts.  

As a policy advisor focusing on social justice issues I believe that psychology has a lot to say about these people, and what their lives and social conditions look like when existing policy places barriers before them or negatively impacts on their mental health and wellbeing.

Most clearly needed in this space to date has been the use and misuse of psychological evidence within the benefits system. The Society has been outspoken in its condemnation of the use of sanctions against benefits claimants since 2017, reiterating these calls this March in a joint statement with a range of other professional bodies and mental health charities.

This is one area in which both the Society and I recognise there is a lot of work to be done. It will remain a key aspect of my role going forward, alongside other key social justice and equalities issues such as policy work around issues facing marginalised and vulnerable populations. This will involve work with networks like Women and Equalities, Male Psychology, Forensic, Community Psychology and certainly many more in order to ensure that we harness best evidence and insight available within the society to support the wellbeing of these groups.

The late psychologist David Smail once wrote ‘It is incumbent upon us to do what we can, even if we cannot do much’. The Society members that I have met since starting this role have expressed a real enthusiasm and desire to engage with our growing capacity for policy influence. I hope many more share these views… the Policy Team are here to enable all of us, and psychology as a whole, to do a lot more to influence policy.

A breadth of expertise and evidence
Nigel Atter, Policy Advisor (Children and Young People’s Mental Health)

As a policy advisor sat in front of a parliamentarian, you quickly have to adjust the way you engage. MPs often want to know how to fix a problem, in the shortest time, and at the lowest cost. These questions often don’t have simple answers. But as long as we are presenting evidence-based responses and having those conversations, this allows us to ask MPs to raise awareness of certain issues through parliamentary questions.

I’m leading work on children and young people’s mental health, voted as a policy priority by the Society’s Senate last year. This builds on previous work: I had developed a small expert reference group and we published two briefing papers, one on children and young people’s mental health in schools and colleges and the second on children in care and the link to a risk of offending.

Later that year the government published a green paper on improving children and young people’s mental health and put out a call for responses. I, along with input and evidence from our members, wrote a draft response to that. Just after the green paper was published the Health and Education Select Committee announced a joint inquiry into the implementation of that green paper which we also took part in.

Politics is personal
Saskia Perriard-Abdoh, Policy Advisor (Health)

No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, it’s easy to get jaded by the state of politics nowadays. My overarching goal as part of the policy team is to embed the notion that ‘politics may be confusing but psychology is here to help’ in the minds of policymakers.

From my perspective, policy clarifies the social contract that exists between people, elected officials and government institutions while providing measures of accountability to ensure that this obligation is being met. Despite how impersonal this concept might seem at first glance, it is individuals who choose which policies to develop, which legislations to lobby for, and which voices are considered before these decisions are finalised.

Understanding these people, how they work, and what pressures they work under is therefore incredibly important if we want policies to be developed with a sound understanding of psychological evidence.

Given the wide range of political and social issues that jockey for attention, policymakers often find themselves overwhelmed by a sheer flow of information. As a result, important issues and valuable perspectives can get filtered out of mainstream policies, not because of an unwillingness from politicians to engage (though of course that can also be the case), but rather because there simply isn’t enough time for them to familiarise and immerse themselves into new issues that are beyond their fields of interest.

In other words, policy makers rarely go out of their way to find new problems and causes to champion if the solutions aren’t easily seen. That being said, if the moment is right, the message is clear, and most importantly, if there are evidence-based solutions and experts willing to take the time to explain them – then change can happen very quickly.

Given the breadth of psychology as a discipline and its focus on understanding the ‘why’ of things rather than simply the ‘how’, I believe Psychologists are uniquely positioned to influence policy and connect decision-makers with great ideas. There is already a lot of great work getting done on that front and I’m really looking forward to helping you embed this work into tangible policy outcomes.

In sum, politics is personal… but what can be more personal than one’s health, sense of self and relation with the rest of society? For this reason, I am delighted that I’ll be working closely with psychologists from the Divisions of Neuropsychology, Health Psychology and Sports and Exercise Psychology on a range of policy areas which connect to the health policy portfolio.

I have had already had the pleasure of meeting and having conversations with many members but, to echo many of my colleagues, please get in touch. There are exciting times ahead.

Find out more about the work of the Society’s Policy Team via

At the Society’s Annual Conference in Harrogate on 1 and 2 May, The Psychologist will be hosting a fringe event: ‘Political powers vs Ivory towers’.

Find out more about the conference via