One strand of the Open Policy Making agenda is about using a broader range of evidence to inform policy. For example the What Works centres were set up to enable policy officials to access research and make use of it for better decision making.
In the policy context, economic and social research is well established. As a recent book about the impact of social sciences indicated, research from the social sciences is now closely tied up with research in the sciences and technology.
In contrast Arts and Humanities research is less visible and familiar to policy officials although there are various pockets of interactions between researchers within these traditions and civil servants (such as these examples). Arts and humanities research covers about 50 fields from media and communication to history, literature to curating, design to theatre. Generally arts and humanities research receives less public funding than other areas. For example, the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s budget is £98 million in 2015-16 but many researchers participate in projects with scientists, engineers, medical researchers and other academics.
An experiment in opening up policy making
To support giving policy makers access to a broader range of research findings, a speed dating event was held in December in the Cabinet Office to bring together civil servants and researchers from the Arts and Humanities. Co-organised with Professor Keri Facer, University of Bristol and AHRC Leadership Fellow for Connected Communities Programme and Hannah Rutter, Senior Policy Adviser in the Cabinet Office, this event was an experiment both in its content - to see if such research could be of value to policy makers - and its format – to see what modes of engagement could work between professionals working in different kinds of context and in relation to different time frames. In designing this event, we saw it as a two-way exchange – bringing Arts and Humanities research to the attention of policy officials and bringing the needs of policy officials to the attention of academics.
Introducing the event, Jill Rutter of the Institute for Government pointed to the opaqueness of government to many people from the outside. Government websites present documents for consultation, or names of senior civil servants, or short summaries of policies. But typically it is not easy for people with research findings, proposals or methodologies who are not already connected to government to identify potential collaborators or “users” for research inside policy contexts.
Using a speed-dating format, we designed a two-hour event that gave policy officials and researchers seven opportunities to meet, each lasting six minutes each. They used this time to exchange information about their work, sharing their policy challenges (from the civil servants) and their research findings and methods (from the researchers).
For the first such event, we collaborated with the Policy Lab team and with the Cabinet Office Social Action team who set the policy challenge as: How can the resilience and capacity of communities be maximised so that they are able to survive, adapt and grow despite chronic stresses and acute shocks? Keri Facer and I invited researchers whose work would offer different perspectives on this question, drawing in particular on the Connected Communities programme funded by the AHRC.
We planned to have equal numbers of civil servants and researchers but in the end, seven policy officials from the Cabinet Office, DCLG and Public Health England participated, meeting 11 academics from several English universities with specialisms in history, languages, literature, design, art, media and communication and education research.
For example Dr Helen Manchester from University of Bristol shared the Tangible Memories project that brought together researchers from the arts, social history and computer science to help improve the quality of life for residents in care homes by building a sense of community and shared experience through a cooperative exploration of their life history stories. Dr Andrew Miles from University of Manchester shared the Everyday Participation project that is producing rich insights into how people take part in every day activities and what assumptions and ways of thinking underpin this. Professor Gowan Dawson from the University of Leicester shared insights from Victorian efforts to involve people in scientific research – an early forerunner for today’s citizen science.
After facilitating the event, we followed up by providing one-page summaries about people’s research and policy areas and exchanged contact details so participants could follow up.
What participants got out of it
All the participants were positive about the experience of being in the event and its value. One policy official commented that what worked well were “rapid-fire conversations that forced focus and ensured that at worst it was an interesting five minute discussion, at best seeded ideas for further discussion or work together.” Some of the policy makers said they planned to act on some of the new connections and take the conversations forward, both in relation to a policy challenge but also more generally about building up the capability of the team.
Academics who are unfamiliar with policy making also found it valuable – and not just for getting their research findings to a new audience. One researcher commented, “I think I’d misunderstood what policy requires from research and thought of it wrongly only in terms of research providing ‘what’ (evidence; identification of the problem) so policy makers could decide on ‘how’ to address it – but what was great was being able, actually, to have the ‘how’ conversations which, of course, is something a lot of policy makers are interested in… lots of leads to follow up on.”
In terms of the design of the event, we learned that we needed to make sure both sides had equal time to share their perspectives and work contexts. It wasn’t just about researchers packaging up their research. The academics wanted to understand more about how the civil servants do their work.
Some people wanted more time to have the initial pairing conversations – especially once they had found someone they wanted to talk to, but that did not always apply. One civil servant commented, “Some of the research was very niche and it was difficult to extract lessons for policy which is very broad.” Further the amount of information people had to absorb in a short space of time was challenging, but some participants thought a two-hour session like this gave them an overview of material they would not be able to access so easily otherwise.
This event demonstrated that arts and humanities research is relevant to policy officials working on complex questions such as relating to community, participation and engagement, both in terms of research findings and methods. After this successful attempt to connect arts and humanities researchers with policy makers, we will now organise other such events using the speed-dating format and other methods and explore other policy challenges. If you would like to be involved please get in touch with firstname.lastname@example.org or Hannah.email@example.com