Informal networks: How policy knowledge brokers across the UK connected to support academic-policy engagement
⌚ Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
As part of our exploration into the importance of knowledge exchange events in academic-policy engagement, we reflect on a pilot network within CAPE called the Policy Knowledge Brokers Forum (PKBF). The network bought together policy knowledge brokers in policy organisations to meet and share experiences. Kayleigh Renberg Fawcett and Jenny Hasenfuss, CAPE coordinators who supported the network, share reflections on what we’ve learnt based on the collective experience from founding members of the network from the Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology, Government Office for Science, and the Evidence & Partnerships Hub at the Ministry of Justice . Our insights from this initiative show that knowledge exchange events are a great way to build networks, provide a safe space for disruptive thinking, and work well when there is a diversity of voices present.
Kayleigh Renberg Fawcett
CAPE Coordinator, UCL
CAPE Coordinator, University of Northumbria
When CAPE was approached by policy-based knowledge brokers to pilot a new network, coined as ‘a bit like UPEN, but for policy knowledge brokers’, these three elements were very much at the heart of their proposal: an opportunity to meet policy knowledge brokers in different national policy organisations (Parliament, Government), a safe space to share experiences, and a desire for there to be representation from all four nations of the UK.
This network, which was called the Policy Knowledge Brokering Forum (PKBF – not quite the catchy acronym), was piloted in 2022. It delivered 5 topical meetings, with representations from multiple UK government departments, UK parliament, Welsh Senedd, Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Assembly. It met virtually, roughly every two months, and was co-chaired each time by a different two members. It shared best practice, common challenges and developed a couple of outputs (this blog on engagement to impact, and slides on innovation for inclusion). CAPE did very light touch administration (set up the meetings, ran the polls, invited co-chairs), but this wasn’t the equivalent of having a fully-fledged secretariat with developed minutes and follow up action plans.
In building such a pilot network, how did we define its success, and how did we ensure it remained useful and relevant, with modest resource? Embedding co-production, creating an inclusive culture and ensuring the scope of focus remained relevant to the realities of the members day jobs are our key takeaways. We elaborate further below.
At the heart of the development of PKBF was the intention that the forum should be driven by the needs of its members. Through those who’d approached CAPE to explore the development of this pilot network, we pulled together a founding forum. This forum collectively drafted a terms of reference: what was in scope (e.g. representation across governments and parliaments) and what was out of scope at this point (e.g. non-government/parliamentary members). It also stated how often it should meet, and laid out responsibilities – CAPE was unable to provide a full secretariat function given capacity, and so this was made clear at the outset. The responsibility for any follow up actions to the pilot forum, would need to come from the members directly themselves. This pilot would therefore test whether a light touch approach enabled not just the sharing of experience, but potential solutions and next steps.
A topic identification session, facilitated through the use of a Padlet, was then established once a sign-up form had been sent to encourage colleagues to join the PKBF. This was a hugely valuable exercise. It drew on the needs identified in the sign-up form and founding members, and enabled all parties to identify – through discussion and voting – what they thought as the most important areas for the forum to cover in 2022. These included: methods for identifying experts systematically, understanding and breaking down barriers to engagement, secondments and fellowships for both academics and policy stakeholders and how to make government more accessible to researchers. Each of these topics then guided the focus for each of the sessions held in 2022.
The embedded co-production approach meant that the sessions remained relevant to the forum members throughout 2022 (each session had roughly the same number of attendees). It also meant that CAPE’s role was to facilitate – rather than direct – what the learning outcomes or objectives for each session were.
Developing an inclusive culture
The culture of the forum was set through the PKBF, but realised through CAPE, the co-chairs of each session and the members. In order to enable the best collaborative environment, an informal approach was adopted which enabled members to represent themselves and their role within their organisation, and connect with others on a cross cutting basis rather than by organisational area or department. This was realised through each session’s co-chairs – two colleagues from across the forum who had never worked together, but were helping to facilitate the session’s conversation (each session had a different co-chair pairing).
This was supported through embedding inclusive chairing practices. Colleagues were encouraged to share their thoughts verbally, through the chat, in breakout groups, or anonymously on online platforms like Padlet during and after the sessions. We observed that the breakout rooms in particular were helpful in encouraging verbal contributions from newer faces to the forum. We also ensured that each meeting fell at a different time/day to the previous meeting, so as not to exclude any one individual due to their working patterns.
This approach was confirmed to be valuable through our data collection: 78% of respondents strongly agreed that they felt included and could take part in the conversations.
Relevant to the day job
The sessions aimed to be practical, ensuring they remained relevant to how members’ work on engagement with the academic community. Follow up was intended to be guided by the co-chairs and there was a deliberate acknowledgement that CAPE wouldn’t be able to support on additional activity, and so outputs ranged from collation of resources, blogs, informal groups and slide decks.
Padlet was often used in discussions – both as evidence of what was discussed (light touch minuting) and as providing references to useful resources.
We were able to capture the impact of this approach in the feedback from the forum– 45% strongly agreed that they had learnt new information as a result of attending these meetings (55% agreed).
If we were to do this again
The PKBF came to the end of its pilot in December 2022. Discussions are underway to explore the sustainability of the forum as its support from CAPE comes to an end. This harks back to other evidence which suggests that knowledge exchange events usually require more resourcing than anticipated.
PKBF could be a standalone forum, or it could be the start of a deeper collaboration across the policy-based knowledge mobiliser community. If the latter is sought, then CAPE has the following reflections for future convenors of the forum, based on feedback from members and our own observations – related to administration and operational support; diversity and continuing a culture of learning around knowledge mobilisation.
Administration and operational: solutions focused activity requires resourcing
Members wanted to develop additional outputs from each session to generate solutions to the common challenges identified by the forum. This requires more resourcing, both in terms of time and people capacity. We know from the experience and excellent track record of UPEN that over time the UPEN network has expanded and evolved, including the development of mechanisms to enable sub groups of specialisation/areas of interest of members and to support effective participation and commonality.
Looking ahead, informal networks such as the PKBF and other forums might want to explore how to balance commitment to actions at the level of the individual whilst in a shared collegiate setting; does taking actions on behalf of a network require participation from all network members in those pathways to impact? Are there interim/similar models such as task and finish groups that could offer tangible ways forward? Or would more formalised partnering across organisations work as a more systemic approach to achieving shared objectives?
Diversity: members valued wider engagement
The forum provided a tangible way to connect and interact across different departments across cross cutting dimensions. In feedback the network members have expressed the potential for developing even wider engagement; both through deepening its membership to more policy colleagues including across the legislatures and also the potential for involving the academic community. This represents an opportunity to build upon the co-production principle established within the pilot, and on our wider reflections on the role of brokerage taking place through systems and people, and could offer more opportunities to collaborate across the research policy divide.
Culture: the role of providing a safe space for learning
Our CAPE Theory of Change recognises the value of creating collaborative spaces and in turn collaborative practices. The lessons gained through the PKBF pilot help us to centre the potential for collaboration in leading to innovation and to more acutely grasping and reflecting on the intricacies of knowledge mobilisation (see Oliver and Boaz 2019). The PKBF pilot is part of a growing infrastructure and capability across depts and policy organisations; any future networks would benefit from linking up to existing and planned knowledge exchange approaches. As the transition options for the PKBF are explored further, can we continue to develop the conditions and understanding of collaboration and knowledge exchange across actors and departments (see Kislov et al 2018) to build upon being a safe space towards further material collaborations?
From informal networks to sustained networks
The Policy Knowledge Brokering Forum demonstrated that a co-productive, inclusive and practical approach served some of the pilot’s aims well: providing a safe space to share experiences. Members felt included, found the sessions valuable and remained engaged throughout. What the forum wasn’t able to achieve as well as hoped was to progress some of the pragmatic solutions identified through these sessions. A light touch administration approach wasn’t able to meet the demand for exploring ideas, and co-chairs didn’t have the capacity, nor the ability, to lead on pan-organisational activities that took them from their day jobs.
These are useful learning points for any networks that are developed in the future, which can help to set realistic expectations related to the networks ambitions (especially for outputs and outcomes) . Finding ways to capture and learn from the early stages of network development provides a sound base to explore how knowledge is created, sustained and exchanged and to plan what next, why, how, for whom and for what impact.
Amin, A and Roberts, J (2008) Knowing in action: beyond communities of practice; Research Policy Vol 37, Issue 2, March 2008, Pages 353-369
Kislov, R., Wilson, P.M., Knowles, S. et al. (2018) Learning from the emergence of NIHR Collaborations for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care (CLAHRCs): a systematic review of evaluations. Implementation Sci 13, 111 https://doi.org/10.1186/s13012-018-0805-y
Oliver K and Boaz, A (2019) Transforming evidence for policy and practice: creating space for new conversations https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-019-0266-1