⌚ Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
CAPE Coordinator, University College London
CAPE Coordinator, University of Manchester
Many of us run knowledge exchange events to support academic-policy engagement, but can we articulate easily why and how they are important?
While we know that there is a plethora of knowledge exchange activities happening across the sector (1), we don’t know yet what works and what doesn’t. This can make it difficult to know what approach to take to create the outcomes we want. Furthermore, without this understanding, articulating the value and importance of knowledge exchange to universities, funders, and policy professionals is difficult.
To help articulate why knowledge exchange events are important, we ran a sharing session with around one-hundred knowledge mobilisers and policy stakeholders to explore this further; this is what we learnt.
In our discussion, what came through overwhelmingly was that the value of knowledge exchange events was in their ability to help build relationships, networks and two-way engagement. One workshop participant commented –
“If we’re talking about academic-policy engagement then the measure of success falls similar to some impact measures – policy change. But we should look at other outcomes than just policy change, for example, partnerships formed.”
Although tricky to measure and account for, the value of a well-established and genuinely two-way relationship – with engagement embedded throughout – is potentially huge. Two-way relationships can open the doors to inclusivity of ideas, cultures, and ways of thinking. As such they can be a steppingstone towards co-productive forms of academic policy engagement where parties work together towards outputs and outcomes. Of course, all of this takes time, resourcing, skills and trust which requires investment over the longer term.
More voices please
Universities are just one part of a wider research and innovation ecosystem that can and should inform policy. Business sentiment, patients, and those with lived experience are hugely valuable for policy development. Having all of these voices not just represented but actively engaging at knowledge exchange events can enrich the dialogue and experiences for all and helps to avoid the potential for group-think. This requires events to be accessible, appropriately framed and formatted so that everyone has the chance to take part. In turn, this means that these sorts of events cannot be quickly put together.
‘More voices’ also relates to sections and levels of policy making: we need better engagement across the local, regional, national and international level, as well as with strategists, analysts and policymakers. This is because the evidence needs are often likely to be different, and delivery of knowledge exchange events needs to be designed with that awareness in mind. What is more, policy that happens at the local level, can be hugely important at the national level. The Oldham Economic Review, for example, was a knowledge exchange project with CAPE involvement which brought together many stakeholders to provide strategic recommendations for Oldham Council. The review is both significant for Oldham, and the findings and lessons could also be used across the UK.
A safe space for disruptive thinking
Knowledge exchange events offer a space to try new things and enable an organisation to drive change. Asima Shaikh, Labour Councillor for Islington, who has worked with CAPE to explore what Good Work means in her local context, described it:
“For me, you’re almost a catalyst… we’re able to bring the academic partners that will allow us to change our thinking institutionally in a safe way and in a guided way…
What CAPE roundtables allowed us to do is to be a bit brave and to learn from radical experiments in other parts of the country.”
We’ve also heard similarly from our CAPE Policy Fellows (policy professionals visiting universities), that they have similar experiences when meeting with academics for one-on-one or small group discussions.
Be open minded about your destination
Andy Westwood, CAPE lead at the University of Manchester, described the approach for two knowledge exchange projects, the Oldham Economic Review and the Greater Manchester Independent Inequalities Commission as being somewhat stepping into the unknown. Just like the scientific method, a researcher shouldn’t have a bias towards a particular outcome, and so ideally knowledge exchange events should be open to having unexpected outcomes. Amanna Giles emphasised this point, saying –
“knowledge exchange can act as a landing point for further engagement and as a ‘way in.”
Of course, if you’re changing your approach as you go because you’re finding new and unexpected things, you’ll need to be mindful of how you’re evaluating what you’re doing. Which leads us to…
When monitoring and evaluating knowledge exchange activities, our discussions highlighted that we need a clear distinction between monitoring the event itself and evaluating outcome(s) of events, which can come some time after. We also need to consider who the evaluation is for: are we monitoring and evaluating to improve organisational processes, equality diversity and inclusion, or for the purpose of satisfying funder or external organisation requirements?
“As impact happens later, it would be good to develop some points to evaluate on [this] basis, for example, new relationships delivered as a result.”
CAPE knowledge exchange sharing session participant
Our participants also felt strongly that sharing learning about knowledge exchange needs to be better. Kathryn Oliver, from the CAPE evaluation team Transforming Evidence, flagged from the outset that what little evaluation is being done in this space is often kept internal and rarely goes beyond a University team’s senior management or advisory board. If we, as a sector, want to improve the way we do knowledge exchange, then we need to ensure that we share how we’re doing it. Otherwise, we’ll all be looking at just one piece of a bigger puzzle and opportunities to improve will be missed as a result.
A new evaluation framework for knowledge exchange?
It’s clear from our workshop that those who work in the sector view the value of knowledge exchange events not because they lead directly to policy change, or ‘impact’ as the sector might recognise it. Instead, they enable what scholars have labelled as ‘relational engagement models’ in academic policy engagement. (2) In practice, this means sharing knowledge, building partnerships, and growing networks.
Furthermore, we found that the benefits of knowledge exchange in academic policy engagement arise in many different forms. Whether that’s building networks, hearing from a diversity of voices, challenging group-think, encouraging innovative ideas, being open to unforeseen outcomes or some of all of these. If we see the value of all of these things, then we need a new framework for how we evaluate academic-policy engagement knowledge exchange events in this context.
Our 'thinking checklist' for knowledge exchange events
If your objective is to build networks and trust, then you can’t do that in a one-off event.
Build time into planning to allow iteration with partners, ensure inclusivity and support follow ups after the events
Academic policy engagement isn’t just about academics and policymakers: bring in lived experiences, industry, charities etc.
Knowledge exchange events can be a safe space to challenge conventional thinking.
Be open to conversations going in new directions – don’t limit yourself to a single outcome before you’ve started.
Evaluation can serve lots of different purposes – don’t wait until you’re finished before you think about how you’re going to evaluate what you’ve done
Share what you’ve learnt and what didn’t work – we can learn from each other sharing best practice (and not so best practice!) with CAPE, UPEN, and other leading bodies
We’ll be thinking more at CAPE about knowledge exchange events over the coming year as we continue to deliver activities. We are looking forward to sharing more with you about our approaches, and are keen to hear more about how you value and evaluate your knowledge exchange events.
- Transforming Evidence, Mapping research-policy engagement initiatives internationally
- Best, Allan & Holmes, Bev. (2010). Systems Thinking, Knowledge and Action: Towards Better Models and Methods. Evidence & Policy: A Journal of Research, Debate and Practice. 6. 145-159. 10.1332/174426410X502284.