Relationships matter – and other top tips for civil servants and academics working together

Written by Professor Zahir Irani on 2 July 2018 in Opinion
Opinion

Academics love nothing more than conversations with like-minded thinkers trying to solve problems. Here’s how the civil service can use these discussions to improve policy

Photo: Flickr/ Angel Abril Ruiz

Academics are mostly accessible and want to play their part in policy. I did – taking a 12 month secondment with the Cabinet Office - and was welcomed and challenged, made good friends and got to help with important policy matters.

Sir Jeremy Heywood has pointed to the UK’s universities as a wasted resource when it comes to evidence-based policy-making. Officials struggle with lack of time and subject expertise, the conflicting voices from different stakeholders, the sheer number of requests from ministers, to engage in any depth with academics. And there’s been the issue of the status of experts more generally. A feature of the ‘Leave’ campaign for Brexit was a questioning of the value of expert views when they contradicted a surge in public feeling.


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In an age when demonstrating real-world impact is an imperative for higher education, we share the frustration. Sharing knowledge and expertise for impact is the whole rationale and reward for individual academics and institutions as a whole. Universities are here for the public good and have a charter to serve – and want to serve. The Institute for Government’s new report is important in setting out the current landscape and good practice of how government can work with academia. There are useful lessons we can add from the academic perspective on the key do’s and don’ts that will make engagement more straightforward.

Most of all, there need to be ongoing conversations. Officials tend to dip in and out of engagement, leading to a general disconnection and a need to constantly keep on finding new ways in and re-making contacts when there is a particular need. An academic relationship management system – recording the details of who, when and outcomes – would be a useful basis for a more pro-active and civil service-wide approach that acts as an intelligent repository. In this way specific needs for evidence and expertise could be flagged to the relevant academics more quickly, ahead of time, and create a virtuous circle: encouraging a wider response, and more in-depth responses, a quality that encourages more officials to look to tap into university resources (both intellectual and physical). The opportunity and process for contributing real world evidence needs to be made as transparent and accessible as possible. Because the reality is that academics love nothing more than an audience of like-minded thinkers and a problem to solve – that’s what attracts people into academia in the first place.

Given the scale of operations in each specialist subject area, where there are thousands of potential experts, each potentially with stocks of research evidence, there is a need for matchmakers and those with the skills to identify the root of problems/challenges and what will provide the right solutions/insights. The matchmakers, like a Dean, can provide a central point of contact and advice on where to look, who’s involved with the most relevant activities, who has the availability to get actively involved. This way, the relationship system fills up with live and ready contacts, and there isn’t the barrier of worry about the time involved in finding the right people.

Higher education shares exactly the same issues as the civil service in initiating engagement: finding the reason, time and motivation to get involved, that initial spur. To maintain the ongoing contact, other than looking for particular evidence to support policy papers, we need to find different ways to engage together. For senior staff, secondments to departments provide a longer-term and richer opportunity for long-term relationships; but for more junior academics and postgraduate researchers it would be useful to give them early exposure to policymaking mechanics, perhaps as a standard part of their training and induction, to emphasise the wider public role of higher education, and seed the idea that their research has the potential to make a wider impact.

When it comes to the ‘don’ts’, I think the key ones are around perceptions. Officials shouldn’t doubt the commitment of academics, for example. While academic journal publication and status among peers continue to be important, the practical impact of research is top of mind. Playing a part in the policy process is seen as demonstrating impact at the highest level. Experts are exactly that, focused on their narrow field, but civil servants shouldn’t be put off by that perceived narrowness – more often than not they are academic experts looking for ways to broaden their outlook, to engage and disseminate what they’re doing. And this is where the civil servants come in; there’s a co-dependency, and between them there comes a more clear-sighted, rigorous and certain platform for policy.

About the author

Professor Zahir Irani is executive dean at the Faculty of Management, Law and Social Sciences, University of Bradford

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