Guest blogger, Kim Fellows from the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) Scotland, and Dr. Shonagh McEwan, Knowledge Exchange Adviser, explore the potential for collaboration between researchers and local government.
The Knowledge Exchange Team recently hosted an event bringing together researchers interested in engaging with local government and the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU). Chaired by James Mitchell, Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Academy of Government, and attended by over 30 researchers, the meeting showed the breadth and depth of the University’s expertise on local governance, public services, local policy and decision-making.
Local government is evolving rapidly
James, who has recently been appointed as a member of the Scottish Government/CoSLA Review of Local Governance, emphasised that local government is a fast-moving world. There are intense pressures financially and issues such as an ageing population, that impact greatly on local government. He asked: what more can we do collectively as academics to make a difference in this field? How can we better engage with local government? What’s missing?
Andy Johnston, CEO of LGiU, began by outlining what the organisation does: “We are an information focused charity. It is our mission, through providing information, to be cheerleaders for local democracy. In particular, we aim to share information that is timely, independent and useful in these every changing times for the public sector. I see us as a convener for local councils and a catalyst for change around the services the public want.”
Participants were united by their interest in research and evidence-based policymaking. It was clear to me that everyone in the room was interested in sharing practice, exchanging knowledge and taking the opportunity to communicate with each other, and a wider audience, to benefit the public in general and users of public services in particular.
There was a wide-ranging discussion and a few themes emerged.
First, the consensus in the room was that local government can be overlooked in the busy policy making landscape and indeed councils are stretched with the acknowledged demands of delivering services in this ever changing policy landscape. There is a capacity available in the academic sector to make space for thinking and sharing learning across many departments and disciplines from Scotland and much further afield. We can find ways to share practices and exchange knowledge that is beneficial for policymakers.
Second, the meeting felt that in Scotland the politicians are in listening mode. With over 50% of councillors’ new to that role, and under the Community Empowerment act with 1% of the budget available to communities, perhaps there is more chance of joining up with purpose – to make a difference. In addition, city region deals are designed to support new joined-up thinking and might be one vehicle with novel opportunities for action and delivery.
Third, around the room we returned to the idea that as policies are rapidly evolving and more and more people are working on short term contracts, new ways of working that develop institutional (not just individual) capacity are needed. Softer skills including sales and marketing, relationship building and influencing are required alongside professional skills such as finance and social work.
Many examples of work were touched on from different places including Brussels, Copenhagen and Stockholm. For example, tools including data partnerships and living labs that could be used to analyse interventions to enhance learning and improve services. The key is not to lift wholesale what works in one country to another. More important is to take the evidence and learning and apply that knowledge intelligently in a different place with different laws and cultural norms.
In conclusion, it was my opinion that this was a successful first meeting. There was a real buzz as I left the room and over the following few days it was clear from email traffic that many connections are emerging. An encouraging and exciting first step to meaningful collaboration. Watch this space.
Collaborating with the Local Government Information Unit
Read on for Shonagh’s summary of the opportunities for researchers to connect their work with local government:
- Write a briefing: LGiU provide a news and briefings service to its extensive network, which includes local and national politicians as well as other key decision-makers. LGiU is growing its network internationally, and there is a demand for comparative research and international studies – if you also have this expertise, the LGiU would love to hear from you!
- Research collaborations: Potential opportunities here are very exciting. LGiU have positive relationships with leaders in local government across the UK, and they can open up opportunities for research where there is mutual benefit. LGiU are interested in collaborations around PhD and research students as well as bigger research projects. Here is an example of a partnership between LGiU and Imperial College London.
- Getting together: Co-hosting a roundtable to share knowledge and open up space for dialogue on potential new collaborations is another option. LGiU have strong relationships with leaders interested in change.
Picking up on Andy’s point about the role of local government shifting to that of convener and catalyst for change in local areas, potentially, this is where the greatest opportunity for academic expertise and collaboration lies. Within this fast-moving and changing environment of local government, local leaders are reaching out – they are sharing their problems and the fact that they need help to solve them. Academics are needed in these conversations. As one participant said: “local authorities no longer have the policy units they used to, thinking space is drowned out and local authorities have far less capacity to plan for the future”.
If you’re interested in engaging with local government for the first time or improving your existing engagement, now is the time!
Kim Fellows works at LGiU Scotland and Dr. Shonagh McEwan is Knowledge Exchange Adviser in the Research Support Office.
Kim Fellows’ blog originally published here