Solace Blog

Unlocking research for local government

By Jason Lowther, Head of Corporate Strategy, Birmingham City Council and Solace Deputy Spokesperson on Evidence Based Policy

Local government needs evidence, from the apparently mundane but nonetheless critical (‘What choice of cladding will minimise the risk of fire spreading?’) to extraordinary insights (‘How do people choose what to eat and whether to be active?’, ‘What skills will today’s youngsters need in the jobs market of 2050?’).


In 2014, Solace supported the initial Local Government Knowledge Navigator (LGKN) report, From Analysis to Action: Connecting Research and Local Government in an Age of Austerity, which demonstrated that:

1. Councils have a wide range of evidence needs;
2. There is relevant research and expertise in academia but local government doesn’t make the most of this;
3. There are some impressive examples of collaboration between academia and local authorities but engagement is inconsistent, and often depends on existing links between individual researchers and local government officers or politicians; and
4. There is a need for a change of culture in both communities, and the development of more systematic approaches to achieving connectivity between them.

The key issues identified around local authorities’ approach to successful engagement were:

- senior appreciation of and support for research evidence;
- experience of using research and data to inform decision-making;
- consortia, to spread the cost and reduce risks to reputation;
- support from brokers with the expertise and time to develop proposals;
- the ability and skills to successfully commission research (or access to them); and
- local authority research teams and service managers establishing relationships with local universities.

Following the LGKN work, Solace continued working with the ESRC and LGA through the Research Facilitator, and has established dedicated spokespeople on evidence-based policy.  Recently, Solace supported the Centre for Public Scrutiny and Nesta in producing the document “Using evidence: A practice guide for local government scrutiny” which launched last month, and which aims to help local government make better use of research evidence.

Recent research has highlighted that local government has particular ways of looking at research that differ from much of academia (including the traditional approaches of public health colleagues).  Local government recognises the importance of ‘place’, and the uniqueness of each area’s situation and background.  As a result, we are particularly interested in evidence, including particular expertise, which relates directly to our place, and this can come across as only being interested in evidence that is ‘home grown’.

When Gemma Phillips and Judith Green recently looked at the transition of public health from the NHS to local government, they found that this different culture reflects local government’s more holistic view of health and wellbeing (rather than healthcare services), and our focus on practicality (rather than the provenance and methodological rigour of research studies).

Austerity has meant less government spending on research and evaluation, particularly at local level, although in 2015/16 national government still invested £5.6 billion in science and research, including £178m in ESRC alone.  So if we want research that government (including local government) will practically use, we probably have to get smarter in terms of more targeted funding, and in particular presenting local government as a key solution to the ‘Impact’ agenda which is vital to universities’ research funding.

This suggests to me that local government needs to take a much more active role in influencing the research agenda locally.  It’s not enough to rely on a kind of ‘Brownian Motion’ in the hope that academics’ research interests will in some way coincide with the policy priorities of local government.  We need to let academics know what our policy priorities are, and to listen to them as they explain what is already known in the relevant fields, and how further research might help us address these priorities.

In the West Midlands, as part of a comprehensive partnership with local universities, the Combined Authority this week set out a clear agenda for research related to its policy priorities for the next three years.  Developed from its Strategic Economic Plan, this includes both economic and social (public service reform) policy priorities, and further development of information sharing and the use of evaluation.  The WMCA ‘Policy Research Plan’ has been developed with input from policy leads and academic experts identified across the local universities and agencies, who will now take forward the agreed activities in a common programme.

So, for example, around ‘connected autonomous vehicles’ we are interested in exploring how emerging technologies can be exploited to improve transport accessibility and reduce subsidy costs whilst supporting enhanced network performance.  Around ‘vulnerable offender pathways’, we need to understand areas where regional working can add most value, together with the offence profile and pathways for specific groups, such as young person and women offenders.

Developing the Plan has compelled policy leads to be much more explicit about the questions they need answering to take forward the policy priorities, and has enabled academic experts to engage in developing these into research-able questions.  As this engagement continues, we expect further synergies to develop giving us much more robust and ‘actionable’ research in future.

References

Local Government Knowledge Navigator reports

http://www.solace.org.uk/knowledge/reports_guides/LGKN_Analysis_to_Action.pdf

http://www.solace.org.uk/knowledge/reports_guides/LGKN_LA_research_collaboration.pdf

Phillips, Gemma, and Judith Green. "Working for the public health: politics, localism and epistemologies of practice”, Sociology of health & illness 37.4 (2015): 491-505.

Using evidence: A practice guide for local government scrutiny

WMCA Policy Research Plan

https://governance.wmca.org.uk/documents/s287/Appendix.pdf