Existing research must be distilled and targeted for councils, who should become expert clients and tell universities what they need, argues David Pye
“We need a better focus on the three ‘C’s – co-production of new research, curation of existing knowledge and clearer client demand from local authorities to shape the research agenda.”
There are immense possibilities for research to improve the delivery of good local government. Our funding crisis (68 per cent budget cuts for councils in England and Wales by 2020) demands that we rethink how we do almost everything. We are seeking fresh approaches to get the most out of our £100bn annual spending.
Meanwhile, many possible solutions have been discovered by the research community. We know, for example, that there is plenty of useful research already completed into important issues ranging, for example, from managing demand for adult social care to dropped kerbs, the misuse of alcohol and the effects of turning street lights off to save money.here are immense possibilities for research to improve the delivery of good local government. Our funding crisis (68 per cent budget cuts for councils in England and Wales by 2020) demands that we rethink how we do almost everything. We are seeking fresh approaches to get the most out of our £100bn annual spending.
Additionally, every year a further £3bn is spent on publicly-funded research, much of it relevant to the challenges we face. Funders expect research to have impacts. You don’t have to be a practiced speed-dater to see the opportunities for a marriage of interests.
The Three ‘C’s
Yet too often these two sectors are like ships passing in the night. Frequently, research undertaken locally is not widely known beyond the area. There are lots of linkages between local authorities and local higher education institutions: the final report is sent to the local authority and the funder, yet the knowledge may not be shared more widely. And higher education institutions, while considering impact, tend to focus nationally and internationally when more opportunities for making a difference may exist at a local level.
How can we bring research closer to the preoccupations and processes of local authority decision-making? We need a better focus on the three ‘C’s – co-production of new research, curation of existing knowledge and clearer client demand from local authorities to shape the research agenda.
First, I would like to see the various research councils place a greater emphasis on co-production when they are commissioning programmes of research. Typically, if a local authority wishes to partner with a university in a project, the university applies and then they bring in the local authority partner. So the conceptual framework has already been set before the local authority has been thoroughly involved. Giving councils an entitlement to apply independently, or in partnership, for research funding would help resolve this inequality. It would help research to develop replicable findings because local authorities understand the importance of context in developing models of change. They also appreciate the processes that their colleagues elsewhere face – they are evidence-informed rather than evidence-led.
The second issue is curation of – and in some cases repurposing – existing studies. We need to cut through the noise of a vast body of work, rather than add to it. Local authorities need heavily distilled findings that have academic rigour without the academic discourse. That means developing targeted review papers, written in accessible terms on key areas of research for local authority policy and practice. This issue is, in part, being addressed. For example, the Cabinet Office set up seven independent ‘What Works Centres’, which are well funded in vital areas. Some £50m was recently set aside to collate and distribute evidence on ageing well. However, there is still work to be done to ensure that such initiatives are properly focussed on local implementation and that the output is useful to local authorities, not just central government. It is not clear that the mechanisms are in place to ensure that the reviews being delivered are what customers in local authorities actually need to support their policy-making.
- Client development
It’s not enough to say that research should be better tailored to the needs of councils. Local authorities themselves have to better identify what they need, how they ask for it and the use they make of it. They need to frame better the questions that they want research to tackle. They must be embedded within the research so that their requirements are properly represented. All of this amounts to local government becoming a more informed client with which the research community can work.
At the Local Government Association, we are tackling some of these issues. Working with the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, and funded by the ESRC, we have helped set up the Local Government Research Facilitator. This is a one-year initiative, launched in May 2015, to help local government to make better use of existing national investment in research and research-derived knowledge and evidence, and to influence future research agendas, programmes and investment.
The Local Government Research Facilitator builds on the work of the Knowledge Navigator which is a web enabled Interactive Exchange Platform run by INLOGOV that offers a “What Works” function for local government to connect with research and for researchers to connect with local government.
Meanwhile, the Research Councils have set up the Impact Acceleration Accounts System (IAAS) whereby 26 UK universities have received monies to ensure there is greater usage and dissemination from their funded work. There is a local government IAAS special interest group, also hosted by INLOGOV, in which colleagues discuss key questions around which they seek to shape future research.
These initiatives all show that the 3 ‘C’s – co-production, curation and client development – are being strengthened in the dialogue between local authorities and research. But there remains much to do if councils are to gain the full potential benefit they need and deserve in these difficult times from publicly funded research.
David Pye is Programme Manager, Research & Information, Local Government Association. His presentation for SPHR@LSHTM, on “Engaging with local authorities”, is Wednesday, 11th May 2016, 12.45-2pm at LSHTM, 15-17 Tavistock Place, London WC1H 9SH.
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