Local government is facing unprecedented challenges. Years of austerity along with other pressures such as an ageing population and the shifting relationship between state and citizen means that local government has to simultaneously manage a number of complex problems. In addition, the devastating impact of COVID-19 has yet to fully play out but it will undoubtedly amplify the disparities that already existed at the local level.
You may be thinking now is not a good time to be considering engaging with local government but the number of big unanswered research 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. You could enable local government to tap into robust knowledge and evidence to help redesign cash strapped services or help them grapple with pressing questions around the future role and shape of local government or provide expertise on cross-cutting areas such as public health and social care. In addition, engaging at the local level may mean tracking or measuring your policy impact is easier as the scales are smaller, decision makers are more accessible, and policy more targeted.
To engage effectively with local government you’ll find it helpful to have a basic understanding of how local government works, where policy decisions are made and the various ways different authorities might use and gather knowledge and scientific expertise.
How local government works: the basics
Local authorities provide a wide range of services to people in their areas, including planning and housing, sports and leisure facilities, and supporting people in vulnerable circumstances such as adults in receipt of local authority social care and children in need of protection. Local authorities also enable local economic growth including through place-based bodies such as Local Enterprise Partnerships.
The configuration of local government in England is complex, with the distribution of functions varying according to local arrangements. To engage effectively with local government you also need to have an understanding of where decisions are made and who has the power to make such decisions. Local councils do have a wide range of powers but these differ considerably depending on whether a local authority is in a two tier or single tier area, or if a ‘devolution deal’ has been agreed with Westminster to form a ‘combined authority’, for example Cambridgeshire and Peterborough who have also transferred leadership powers to an executive elected mayor who has responsibility for running some local services. A renewed energy in favour of further devolution has been expected following a recent Queen’s Speech and there has been much debate about the over-centralisation of power as a result of coronavirus pandemic polices such as test and trace.
How is policy made at the local level?
Like Government Ministers, local councillors will form policy positions by seeking advice from their officers as well as taking into consideration other factors such as the local need, the party position, budget constraints, public mood or even media focus on a particular issue. So, although evidence can and does inform policy at the local level, it will not be the only factor which determines it. Councillors have to balance the needs and interests of residents, voters, political parties and their council. They decide on the overall direction of policy which is implemented by council officers who put council policies into practice and deliver local services on a daily basis.
Scientific and engineering expertise in local government policy making
There are fewer formalised routes for policy engagement with local government compared to, for example, engaging with Parliament, but academic research will be used in local government in a variety of different ways. Academic research can inform policy or underpin strategic thinking, including strategic needs assessments; developing place-based initiatives; determining priorities for investment; and in commissioning services. Evidence will also help scrutinise policy decisions that the executive is planning to take. Local councillors and officers are generally likely to be interested in your expertise if it is relevant to current issues on their agenda. Time spent observing relevant local political discourse and debate can provide valuable knowledge to ascertain what might be policy relevant, provide access to diverse networking opportunities, enable you to make effective contributions to policy discourse with confidence and maximise the right opportunity for your engagement. Research has shown that academic expertise is more likely to be utilised if targeted, relates to the specific organisational priorities of those who may use evidence in policy formation and presented in a format that can be easily understood.
In particular the importance of context is a recurring theme in literature relating to local engagement strategies and has ‘significant impact on both how evidence is perceived and how it is used within a local government setting’. This suggests there will be a need to interpret your evidence in light of the local context to make it relevant and increase its chances of being utilised. Understanding the local government policy landscape also entails taking into account who you think the key policy players are at the local level. In addition you’ll need to factor in what your motivation might be to engage with them, when you want to do it and how you want to do it.
Given the complexity of local government there will be many different routes and pathways for science and engineering academics to engage with and potentially influence local government policy making. You can find out about ways you can keep abreast of local government discourse and practical ways to engage in the downloadable booklet below. The guide, below, relates to local government in England. You can find out information about how councils work in the devolved nations here: Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
References on this page
 To note this was drafted during early to mid 2020.
 You can read more about this complexity in the downloadable booklet below.
 See for example: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/may/05/private-covid-19-tracing-disaster-councils
 Johnstone, D. (2013) Squaring the Circle: Evidence at the Local Level, Alliance for Useful Evidence & Nesta
 Cheetham, Mandy & Redgate, Sam & Humble, Clare & Van der Graaf, Peter & Adamson, Ashley, (2019). Local Authority Champions of Research: a mixed methods proof of concept study. The Lancet. 394. S11. 10.1016/S0140-6736(19)32808-9.
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