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Engaging with local government policy: what works?

Bennett Institute’s Research Associate Sarah Foster reflects on what works with academic policy engagement at a local level - with contributions from Councillor Ian Manning and early career researchers Orla Woodward and Cecilia Castro - by drawing on their experiences of an innovative policy challenges model providing the opportunity to impact directly on real-world local policy making.

There is no doubt that local government is facing unprecedented challenges.  The number of big unanswered questions local authorities will be grappling with both in the short-term and in a post-coronavirus world, means the need for independent scientific expertise has never been more important. 

Academic research can be used in local government in a variety of different ways from informing policy or underpinning strategic thinking, including: strategic needs assessments; developing place-based initiatives; determining priorities for investment; and in commissioning services[1].  In addition it’s possible that policy engagement at the local level is more likely to impact directly on policy making and implementation leading to impacts that go beyond ‘conceptual’ or ‘symbolic’ to impacts that are ‘instrumental’ and therefore lead to a direct policy change[2].  This is because the scales are smaller in local government, decision makers are more accessible and policy more targeted. 

A good example of instrumental impacts is the Cambridgeshire County Council Policy Challenges programme that has now been running for four years.  Within Cambridge the programme is a collaboration between the Cambridge University Science and Policy Exchange, (CUSPE), and Cambridgeshire County Council.  The unique model offers the chance to impact real-world local policy making and develop an understanding of how local government works while contributing to the community. The Policy Challenges brings together teams of volunteer early-career researchers to work directly with the County Council for six months on policy problems affecting Cambridgeshire residents. 

Overseeing the programme, Ian Manning, the Member Champion for evidence-informed policy at Cambridgeshire County Council, reflects on his experience to date highlighting what it’s been like to work with early career researchers and what has led to its continuing success.  He has had the chance to witness a range of interactions across all the teams, dip in and out of how they are doing and how they are interacting with council officers and each other.  He comments:

I think there’s a natural underestimation of how much is involved in local Government, from internal process and procedure to the technicalities of any particular policy area’.  The programme looks to tweak and improve every year although there are, he thinks, some things that remain constant: ‘Researchers narrowing down their focus before they try to fix all the County’s problems in six months; the growing realisation they have open access to officers and politicians; and the first seeds of ideas that are new, exciting and different!

To date successive Policy Challenges have:

  • recommended an intervention within schools, to narrow the achievement gap, which saw a 5 per cent improvement in outcomes for the poorest students - the best change in any Local Authority
  • helped with the strategic restructuring of the council’s Innovate & Cultivate Fund shaping the way the Council hands out a specific fund to third sector groups
  • presented compelling evidence to inform the development of the Council’s Climate Change and Environment Strategy and Action Plan.

Ian reflects that in that first year of the programme it was uncertain as to whether the concept would succeed:

... after all, there was always a chance that the teams simply wouldn’t come up with viable suggestions! Now it doesn’t seem like a shock: if you get a bunch of clever, interested, trained researchers together with dedicated local government officers, you’ll get interesting and innovative results’.  One of the key ingredients to the programme’s success is very much its collaborative spirit which has been reported to be an important factor in influencing the use of evidence[3].  Ian comments:  ‘due to their unique setup we have shown how evidence informed policy making can work as a partnership of equals, and I’m excited for what comes next.

From a different perspective, Orla Woodward and Cecilia Castro, the CUSPE co-ordinators for the current round of the Policy Challenges, reflect on their experiences as early career researchers taking part in a previous programme.  During 2019 they worked on a project to ascertain the most appropriate evaluation method for the Healthy Fenland Fund – an asset-based community development initiative.  Based on a literature review and primary data collection they then piloted relevant evaluative methods to produce a set of recommendations which they presented to the council’s Heath Committee.  

Orla and Cecilia both have lab-based science backgrounds, so this was a very different experience to their usual research.  They were able to gain transferable skills, including collaborating with multiple stakeholders and writing succinctly for policy makers, as they produced an evidence-informed report.  Throughout the programme they had the opportunity to work closely with individuals working within and alongside local government, including Councillors, Council Officers, public health consultants, health service providers and the general public.  They reflect:

Through these connections we developed a better appreciation not only for the different jobs involved in policy decisions, but also for their roles in the community and the multi-organisational nature of policy making. 

Their experience demonstrates the importance of understanding the local policy landscape in order to engage effectively.

Another important component of this programme is that some previous participants in it have become Policy Challenge co-ordinators within CUSPE.  Orla and Cecilia are now CUSPE coordinators for the current round of the programme and comment: 

We had such an enjoyable time working on the Policy Challenges programme that we decided to extend our contribution further and share the lessons we learnt regarding the successful delivery of a previous Policy Challenges report.  As co-ordinators we worked with the amazing transformation team at the Council to shape the next round of the programme through identifying topics of interest, finalising questions and recruiting participants.  This was an invaluable opportunity to work at the interface between academia and policy and develop transferrable skills that will enable us to work as, or alongside, policy makers in the future. 

The Policy Challenges Programme demonstrates very well that academic rigour can help supply fresh thinking and new ideas that have a bearing on the big questions that local councillors and officers are grappling with. 

Links to find out more about:

  • Other pathways to engage effectively at the local level in the Bennett Institute's Policy Resources:‘Engaging with local government’
  • The Policy Challenges collaboration between Cambridgeshire County Council and CUSPE, click here.

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References

[1] Johnstone, D. (2013) Squaring the Circle: Evidence at the Local Level, Alliance for Useful Evidence & Nesta

[2] For a good discussion on a framework to classify types of policy impact see here

[3] [3] Oliver, K., Innvar, S., Lorenc, T. et al. 'A systematic review of barriers to and facilitators of the use of evidence by policymakers'. BMC Health Serv Res 14, 2 (2014).