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Developing Areas of Research Interest with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to drive academic engagement with government evidence needs

⌚ Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Elizabeth Lomas CAPE Fellow DCMS

Elizabeth Lomas

CAPE Policy Fellow

Elizabeth Lomas is a CAPE fellow based at the UK Government Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). She is a former civil servant, and now a UCL academic engaging in co-created research that delivers into public policy spaces. For her fellowship, she is working on the update to the department’s 2018 Areas of Research Interest (ARI) document, sitting in the team of DCMS’ Chief Scientific Advisor, Prof Tom Rodden. On commencing her fellowship she said, 

“Re-entering the civil service reminded me very quickly of its different structures and rhythms. Like academia, it is an intense environment with an enthusiasm and pressure to deliver, but unlike it, most of the goals are more team orientated.”

Below, Elizabeth shares with us the development of the ARI with DCMS and her reflections on the process so far.

Areas of Research Interest (ARI) give details about the main research questions facing government. They act as a mechanism to communicate government policy priorities to stakeholders, start conversations, encourage the submission of existing studies and to initiate new research. As such, ARI are an important tool for DCMS to obtain a wide and in-depth evidence base to inform decision-making.

Diversifying inputs to develop Areas of Research Interest

The update and delivery of ARI is a relatively large-scale strategic project for DCMS; it requires all policy and analysis teams to map their evidence needs and work with the Chief Scientific Advisor to distil these into one document. To produce a strong evidence base, it is important, where possible, to hear from a range of stakeholders from different disciplines, professions and backgrounds who can question and interrogate any prior assumptions and biases. It is important to ensure that research generated considers policy needs for society as a whole. 

“I have been struck by the ambition of DCMS to ensure that as a department they reach beyond the ‘usual suspects’ and diversify the channels through which they receive research data.”

To diversify this input into ARI development, DCMS has recently established a College of Experts, comprised of 49 people at all stages of their career; the experts are aligned to DCMS policy needs but drawn from different contexts. The College of Experts is there to be a critical friend, providing DCMS policy and analytical leads with a framework to have policy discussions freely and frankly before engaging with a wider population. This, in turn, enables policy and analytical leads to build up their own confidence in terms of liaising with external stakeholders. Whilst government machinery is intimidating to approach from the outside, equally engaging with universities and their academics can also be daunting from a civil servant’s perspective. In addition, there are often concerns amongst civil servants that their comments will be leaked and inaccurately published in the media, although in fact this has rarely happened and academics understand confidentiality needs. 

“My reflection on stepping between academic and policy spaces is that both sides are often intimidated at the outset, so we need to develop opportunities to break down those barriers; we have more to gain than to lose through better interactions. Better communication channels should provide for mutually beneficial relationships and the ARI are one strand in this ecosystem.”

Producing Areas of Research Interest

In terms of producing ARI, I am working with DCMS teams to translate their evidence needs into research questions which can stimulate the production of studies to fill evidence gaps and advance the existing evidence base. This is challenging, as DCMS has a very wide-ranging policy remit including arts, culture, civil society and youth, digital and media, ceremonial events, gambling, sport and tourism. This remit brings competing considerations. For example, how do we grow tourism and in tandem meet environmental objectives? 

To help deliver this, we are workshopping individual policy areas with Arm’s Length Bodies, our College of Experts and targeted groups. These exchanges should ensure key concepts and questions are understandable to critical audiences, and help to frame the ARI document to ensure maximum engagement. For example, at one recent workshop with Queen’s University Belfast, academics noted that our policy language needed to align better with research terminology. In terms of reviewing DCMS’ policy needs, they suggested question shifts in order to accommodate a wider range of methodologies for the research delivery. In addition, they reminded us that digital solutions do not solve every problem and gave support for areas where DCMS is working to ensure that digital delivery does not marginalise and exclude some people and populations in society. Finally, they helped us undertake some horizon scanning, some of which was speculative and some, such as 7G, which seems inevitable. As we are very close to the work, having these external checks ensures that we are properly communicating our needs.

The benefits of new perspectives

The ARI development work is being undertaken against a backdrop of civil service efficiency reviews and a changing political landscape. With these live issues occupying minds, as well as the need to deliver effectively against the ARI, the fellowship has been essential as I can focus on one objective and assist in keeping everyone on track with ARI delivery when they have many competing priorities. In addition, as someone with research experience, I can be another sense check on the document in terms of how long it will take to generate new research in particular areas and about the kinds of research approaches that may produce the evidence best fitted for underpinning particular policy needs. Finally I am coming to this area with a fresh perspective.

Launching DCMS Areas of Research Interest

Following round one of our workshops, there will be a second round of discussions looking at the revised ARI. We plan to launch the final ARI document in the Autumn, and will be advertising this as extensively as possible, including through running policy focused sessions on parts of the ARI. 

With the first ARI release in 2018, we did not fully evaluate the level of external engagement or the use that was made of the research gathered. For this iteration, we hope to evaluate its impact more thoroughly, considering the demographics of the stakeholders that have engaged, as well as the quantity, quality and use made of any resulting research submitted.

I look forward to launching the ARI in the Autumn and driving forward engagement with academics on DCMS’ evidence needs. If you would like to keep in touch with this work then please email me. We will register your interest and ensure you are kept informed of the ARI release and any relevant events or opportunities that arise.