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How Communicating Water Policy Using an Academic Lens Enables Better Decisions

Two keys for an academic communicating policy is to remain objective and let the audience digest the information in their own ways. Are you Communicating with FINESSE?
Two keys for an academic communicating policy is to remain objective and let the audience digest the information in their own ways.

Communicating water policy takes on many shapes and forms depending on the lens used to digest the information and then in communicating it to various audiences. For me, having a doctorate in policy studies, the policy process and policy theories and frameworks in the policy field provide the lens for understanding and communicating policy.


A Communications Challenge for Many Academics

Communicating policy to others requires a specific skill set for academics. Audiences look to academics to transfer cutting-edge information in an unbiased manner. Communicating policy as an academic is a great honor that comes with great responsibility.


Translating Technical Concepts to Common Language

One of the key challenges in communicating water policy to stakeholders and other audiences is having to translate technical concepts into more common language for audiences which usually have varying technical levels of understanding. This requires knowledge of the audience that I will be communicating the policy to, which enables me to translate technical language into a more common language as needed and potentially tailor the presentation to the audience if it is a water sector-specific audience. Even with that understanding ahead of time, it remains a daunting task to boil down complex decision-making processes into highlights and a brief summary with takeaways for an audience. 


History Is An Important Component

History is an important component of communicating policy for me. The policy process itself is a critical component of the resulting policy decision. Many times, policy issues will reach the agenda-setting stage of the process and stall out. So why did the policy change occur now? Knowledge of the entirety of the process, including previous policy decisions or non-decisions, is important in policy communication, with path dependency often constraining the decision.


Most Policy Decisions Are Incremental

Policy decisions can come about in different ways which is also meaningful. For the most part, policy change is made in an incremental fashion, tending to problems as they arise and coming up with short-run solutions to adjust to the current problems.


Some Policies Changes Are Sudden

Other times, policy change comes in different forms such as through policy diffusion in which policies spread from one region or state to another, or a punctuated equilibrium approach in which policies remain stable for long periods of time followed by major change which creates a new stability point, or from an advocacy coalition approach in which interest groups advocate and/or lobby for policy change, as examples. This policy history and additional context matters when communicating policy.


Academics Should Remain Objective

The key for an academic communicating policy is again to remain objective, to present all sides of the issue to allow the audience access to the entire picture and to allow them to digest the information in their own way. This flows into making recommendations to the audience if asked, using the data and best available science to guide the response. There will also be times when I do not have an answer for the audience, which is ok. Acknowledgement of not knowing is also important rather than pretending to have all of the answers. Finally, being a continuing resource for the audience as needed is critical for academics communicating water policy with FINESSE.



Communicating water policy takes on many shapes and forms. Policy theories, frameworks, and processes provide the lens for understanding and communicating policy. In most cases, policy change is slow. Academics should remain objective and serve as a continuing resource that enables effective communication.


Tom Walker, Ph.D. is the research coordinator for the South Carolina Water Resources Center. Tom has been at Clemson University since 2012. He was previously a postdoctoral fellow in the SC Water Resources Center and his work focused primarily on several phases of the State Water Planning Process.


Tom’s work with statewide water resources planning includes the State Water Planning Process Framework as well as current work in specific river basins such as the Pee Dee, Saluda, Upper Savannah, and Lower Savannah.


Tom serves as the editor for the Journal of South Carolina Water Resources. He is also one of the annual organizers of the South Carolina Water Resources Conference.  Please visit both websites for their calls for abstracts.


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