In December 2020, the Capabilities in Academic-Policy Engagement partnership (CAPE) co-facilitated a workshop with Camden Council at a meeting of the London Policy & Strategy Network. The aim of the workshop was to explore:
- current policy challenges for local councils
- difficulties in accessing research evidence and expertise
The discussion at the workshop will inform the development of CAPE activities to support engagement with local councils within London and across England.
Adur & Worthing Council
East Sussex Council
Kent County Council
Local Information Government Unit (LGIU)
Power to Change
Royal College of Art
St Helens Council
Save the Children
1. Current policy and strategy challenges
Participants were asked to identify current policy and strategy challenges being faced by them individually or by their councils more broadly. A wide-ranging discussion identified a wide variety of challenges faced by local councils. It was notable that many of the challenges identified were felt to be common across councils. The major themes of the discussion are summarised below.
Managing and responding to challenges of COVID-19
This was the dominant concern amongst most participants, in particular due to the increasing pressures and councils to support residents and the growing evidence of increasing inequalities. Specific concerns which were highlighted focused around understanding the pandemic’s impacts on specific groups and on the most effective ways for councils to support recovery that could also support other policy objectives.
The future of town and city centres
Another significant issue was considering how towns and cities should develop, particularly in the context of recovery from the pandemic. Challenges included modelling the future of town and city centres and ensuring sustainable investment in regeneration and infrastructure. Also highlighted were: the need to better understand the interactions and mutual dependencies between organisations’ and residents’ behaviour; how to create child-friendly districts; and enabling 15 minute neighbourhoods.
Broader citizen engagement
Participants also considered how councils could encourage diverse engagement and participation, and how to engage different communities which had different needs and perspectives. There was considerable interest expressed in the idea of co-creation of policy with different communities and actors, including those likely to be most affected by policy and academic experts. Discussion also touched on how academic expertise could fit within the ‘jigsaw’ of interrelated policy challenges and help to provide greater context and joining-up.
Enabling use of expertise, analysis and experimentation
There was considerable interest expressed in making more use of academic research in policy development, including ethnographic research, randomised control trials, and qualitative research on the economic, social and psychological impact of Covid. There was enthusiasm amongst participants for the idea of being able to test and experiment more with policy ideas, although some uncertainty about the extent to which this was feasible. Concerns were also expressed that budget and staff cuts could undermine the status of analysts in local authorities with attention being diverted to immediate fire-fighting rather than longer-term policy development.
2. Barriers to engaging with research expertise
The second half of the workshop focused on the barriers participants encountered in trying to engage with academic and research expertise. These included limits in capacity or difficulty in accessing and understanding evidence, as well as the challenges of progressing new ways of working, including greater collaboration and co-production with academics and researchers.
Understanding and accessing evidence and research expertise
Participants noted that capacity constraints often stand in the way of engaging with academics and researchers especially when engagement does not address an immediate or urgent need. This can impede the ongoing, sustained engagement which is key to developing effective networks that can enable staff to navigate organisations in order to find relevant expertise when required. Other concerns related to limited knowledge within councils about research methodologies and uneven understanding of different kinds of evidence (including data and evidence from lived experience) and how it can be used.
Tensions between short-term policy delivery and longer-term policy development
A further observation related to the tensions faced by local councils when responding to increasing demand for services (particularly as a result of the pandemic) at a time of reduced budgets. This could exacerbate tendencies to focus on short-term fixes at the expense of addressing longer-term problems. It was suggested this was often at odds with advice and input from academics and could act as a barrier to engagement. There was however broad agreement on the importance of focusing policy on addressing root causes. It was suggested that academic expertise could help address the need identified by some participants to improve the current ‘low status’ of preventative policy
Doing things differently
Another strong theme was the difficulty in allowing for iteration in policy development and delivery. Short-term pressures were felt to drive implementation with insufficient agility to be iterative or adjust policy in response to experience. Suggestions were made around ‘re-imagining’ the policy life cycle to better incorporate analysis of policy implementation and its impact on people in order to inform future policy development and further delivery.
Some participants also suggested that Covid provided an opportunity to ‘do things differently’ by challenging perceptions and forcing councils and individuals not to do things as they have always been done. Others however suggested that whilst Covid may have made people more comfortable working at pace, trying new things, and working more iteratively, this was a temporary change in response to the immediate impacts of the pandemic and may not be sustainable.
Next steps: Increasing collaboration and co-creation
The discussion finished by considering ways in which researchers and council staff could work better together. It was felt that more ongoing engagement could help to support greater alignment between research work with policy needs by increasing mutual awareness of work and interests. It was suggested that academic-policy engagement with local councils could also aim to build greater consensus on possible collaborative projects. In particular, such activity could focus on tackling specific outcomes, as well as on sharing general knowledge. One suggestion was that researchers and council staff could work together to prototype different solutions to policy problems. A further point was the value of ‘learning as we go’ and understanding what that would mean in practice for policy development and delivery, particularly in terms of drawing on research evidence.
CAPE engagement with local councils: Many of the issues raised in the workshop related to local renewal and enhancing local government capacity for engagement with academic expertise. CAPE is developing a number of project activities addressing these themes and is keen to engage with participants to explore further collaborative activities. Please get in touch at [email protected].