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A year and a half of CAPE – what have we learnt?

A year and a half into our four year project, we took some time to reflect on our collective experience of the project so far, and what we’ve learnt along the way.

Starting a project in a pandemic is difficult but brought surprising advantages

CAPE commenced exactly as the first lockdown happened. Our usual methods such as meeting stakeholders face-to-face or hosting fellowships in person had to change. It also meant that we weren’t able to hire our project team as quickly which significantly affected what we could do in those embryonic first few months.

However at the same time, the role of scientific advice became daily headline news. We had to spend a lot less time than we’d anticipated explaining why CAPE mattered – suddenly it was self-evident.

And as a collaborative project with geographically diverse partners, we’ve undoubtedly benefited from the growth of digital tools to network and collaborate. This means we can explore the relative benefit of virtual vs face-to-face engagement when it comes to overcoming geographical barriers in building relationships, for example.

It’s people that make policy engagement happen

Having staff in place to build connections, have meetings, progress actions, and follow things up is as important as having cash to support activities. This bears out Ottoline Leyser’s emphasis on the importance of better recognising the people in universities who provide ‘connectivity’ between research and broader society.

It’s also pertinent on the policy side. Our experience through CAPE suggests that demand for engaging with academic researchers is high but capacity is limited (and resource on the CAPE side can only go so far). Activities have progressed most quickly where there are dedicated knowledge exchange structures, docking points, and/or enthusiastic people willing to dedicate time and effort to moving things forward.

Embedding experts in policy organisations makes a big difference

What we’ve learnt from our policy fellowships also illustrates a similar point: embedding people in a policy organisation to progress a particular area of work, or to create a sustained programme of engagement with researchers to explore common interests makes a difference. While we still have a lot to learn from our different policy intervention strands, the value of having individuals in a position to engage is clear.

We are also finding that relatively small interventions can make a big difference – for example, the CAPE Policy Fellow in the Scrutiny Unit in Parliament is stimulating new structures which will support academic-policy engagement on both sides. Our regional Policy Fellow based with Yorkshire Universities is benefitting higher education institutions across the region through their work with West Yorkshire Combined Authority and Placed-based Economic Recovery Network (PERN).

History and locality matter

We are five universities in CAPE across England with different institutional infrastructure and local policy agendas. We’ve learnt that we need to approach policy engagement with an understanding of our different geographies and biographies. By developing apparently universal ‘tools’ and approaches, we risk overlooking particular capacities, networks and histories of policy engagement. Smaller concentrations of policy relevant knowledge, geographical distance from centres of political power, and different views on priority policy audiences can all make responding to policy demand as a consortium more difficult. We need to be very focused on developing approaches that are sufficiently flexible and pay attention to different positions within HEI and policy spheres.

We learn through failure as well as success

Some of the fellowship opportunities that we have advertised have struggled to attract applicants, some collaborations with local authorities have taken more time to establish than expected, some models haven’t worked at all. But that’s okay, we’re learning as we go, and it’s integral to our ethos and purpose as a project to share the lessons we’ve learnt along the way with the sector as a whole.

Taking time to develop activities collaboratively is important

It’s important to allow time and make room for iteration to develop activities. This allows trust to build, diversity of thought to surface, and also enables iterative discussion and evolution of ideas as part of a co-creative process. We haven’t launched immediately into the delivery of activities in any of our engagements; the collaborative development has been crucial to underpin strong engagement and meaningful activity.

As well as time, co-creation also needs some degree of flexibility to respond to changing circumstances. This is easiest to do when strong relationships exist. But flexibility is not the same as ambiguity – it is also important to develop clear, shared objectives to guide collaborative activities and to ensure mutual understanding of how and why things might change. This is one of the ways where our Theory of Change can come in use, to start these sorts of discussions with potential collaborators.

Collaboration is powerful

Working as a consortium has enabled greater creativity and diversity in our approaches. It both supports us to be more inclusive in the academic-policy engagement activities we develop and also expands our capability. Through our core partners we have a stronger platform to engage with policy stakeholders, and as a consortium we are keen to find ways to strengthen collaboration beyond our immediate partnership. Our CAPE Collaboration Fund, for example, enables non-CAPE academics to apply as CO-Is and our knowledge exchange events bring in other voices. We are interested in what more could be done.

CAPE is also part of a growing academic-policy engagement ecosystem with increasing activity, not least through funder initiatives such as the International Public Policy Observatory and the Economics Observatory, policy focused structures such as Parliament’s Knowledge Exchange Unit, and the brokerage platform provided by the Universities Policy Engagement Network. As we move into an intensification of project delivery, we are keen to maximise opportunities for collaboration and shared learning across the sector.

What next?

Over the past year and a half, we’ve developed meaningful initiatives through collaborations with government departments, local and regional authorities, and CAPE Policy Fellowships held by both academics and policy professionals. This strong foundation has allowed us recently to launch our CAPE Collaboration Fund, funding to support academic researchers and policy professionals to co-develop and deliver policy work in response to policy demand. We are also looking forward to starting our policy engagement training programme for policy professionals and university staff developed by Nesta. In the meantime, you can catch up on some of our activity through our podcast, CAPEcast, following us on twitter or by signing up to our newsletter if you haven’t already.

Want to have a chat with us? Get in touch [email protected]