Westminster, an inside account

Engaging with policymakers, especially those in Westminster, can take many forms. Dr. Maria Pregnolato shares her recent experience and identifies how to improve the interaction between research and policy.

The what and when:

In April 2021, I was part of a ‘Pairing Scheme’ organised by the Royal Society with the ambition to, ‘give policymakers and research scientists an opportunity to experience each other’s worlds’.

Scientists with at least two years postdoctoral or industry research experience across STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine and Maths) are eligible to apply (details here).

Typically, some 250 applications are shortlisted to 60 candidates from which 30 will be paired with Parliamentarians or Civil Servants. The selected researchers see first-hand how research findings can help inform policymaking, and how they can be involved.

Due to current circumstances, activity was online, beginning with a virtual ‘Week in Westminster’. This included a number of presentations, including ‘How Parliament Works’ given by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, and ‘How Select Committees Work’ hosted by the (Commons) Science and Technology Committee.

We also got to quiz the Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, Greg Clark, MP and hear from keynote speakers like Prof. Paul Monks, the Chief Scientific Advisor to the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). Our roundtable discussions included an exploration of the role for research and innovation in ‘levelling up’ the UK and in a ‘politics live’ session we watched Prime Minister’s Questions.

What else?

I was paired with Chi Onwurah, MP. She studied electrical engineering and was Head of Telecoms Technology at Ofcom before entered in Parliament in 2010. Chi brings her prior learning and experience to bear in her role as Shadow Minister for Digital, Science and Technology. I had previously met Chi when I was selected to present my research at ‘STEM for Britain’ in 2016 when a PhD student at Newcastle University, since she was, and still is, the MP for Newcastle.

I particularly enjoyed the Q&A session with Amanda Solloway, MP, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Minister for Science, Research and Innovation) at BEIS. She was very keen to stay in touch, to reach out as much to the research community(“please give us information”) and she spoke of a vision to give funding without complex process of grants, “which perhaps give no justice to good research not well-written”.

What did I learn?

  • Policymakers rely on experts and have scientists in the background to inform them.
  • When scientists inform, the responsibility is not on them: politicians make the decisions.
  • To have policy influence – communication is key: engage early and be persistent, and sharp, e.g., concise specific messages and tangible recommendations, three sentences max, and have examples that are easily understood.
  • MPs are more open and available than you might imagine.

What might improve the interaction between research and policy?

There are a few barriers between policy and research, notably:

  • The timeframe (years vs. days).
  • The language used.
  • Not enough opportunities like this scheme, and
  • No formal pathways of engagement.

Though if scientists and researchers embrace the opportunities that exist and seek to create other chances to make contact with policymakers, building networks, then relationships are established so that collaboration is easier – even at pace – so that research can inform both policy development and implementation.

Was it worthwhile?

Absolutely yes. I am grateful to Royal Society for this opportunity, and I very much recommend that anyone interested in impactful research considers an application or seeks to engage with policymakers in other ways.

Continuing confusion about Universal Credit and couples

This blog post was written by Marilyn Howard, Honorary Research Associate at the Law School and doctoral student in the School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol and Fran Bennett, Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Social Policy and Intervention, University of Oxford, and a Visiting Fellow at the University of Bath Institute for Policy Research (IPR).

On 9 March, the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee and the Commons Work and Pensions Committee held a joint oral evidence session. The Committees wanted to question the Government about its responses to the reports they had both published recently (see: Economic Affairs Committee report and Commons Work and Pensions Committee report) about Universal Credit (UC). Such a joint session is unprecedented, to our knowledge.

The witnesses were Will Quince MP, Minister for Welfare Delivery, and Neil Couling, Senior Responsible Owner for UC in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). One question was about the potential for separate payments of UC to each partner in couples, to replace the single payment to one account that is currently the default arrangement. This had been favoured by witnesses giving evidence to the Economic Affairs Committee, including both academics and nongovernmental organisations (and including Rita Griffiths from the ESRC-funded Universal Credit and Couples research project based at the University of Bath). But the Government has reiterated that it is unnecessary to introduce such separate payments.

These issues have been raised previously and discussion of them tends to reflect ongoing confusion about how couples manage their money; who currently receives UC in couples; and the Scottish Government’s intention to introduce separate payments. In order to try to clarify these topics, we draw here on our joint article and on our engagement and writing as active members of the Women’s Budget Group, which has carried out gender analysis of UC since it was first mooted.

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Management consultants in healthcare do more harm than good, but keep getting rehired – new research

This blog post was written by Andrew Sturdy, Chair in Organisation and Management, University of Bristol and Ian Kirkpatrick, Chair in Management, University of York. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license, read the original article here.

The use of management consultants has grown enormously in recent years. In the UK, consultancy brings in around £10 billion a year in fees across the public and private sectors. And while not totally recession-proof, the numbers grew in the run-up to Brexit and then COVID-19. (Remember test and trace? Consultants played a major role.)

Consulting firms can provide advice and extra resources at short notice and can be very effective for the right task and client. But their use often brings controversy, especially when public money is at stake, over the value of outsourcing, for instance. This raises a number of questions. Does consultancy bring improvements such as increased efficiency? If not, how can we explain its huge growth?

In the NHS, there is a remarkable lack of clarity and transparency over how much consultancy is used and with what effects. This falls within broader concerns noted in a recent National Audit Office report on procurement across public services.

In our ongoing research on management consultancy in the NHS, we have started to address these issues.

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“Getting your research in front of people who matter” – the benefits of policy placements

Contributors:

Professor Rachel Murray (Professor of International Human Rights, University of Bristol Law School)

Jamie Evans (Senior Research Associate, Personal Finance Research Centre, School of Geographical Sciences)

Dr Tamsin Sharp (Visiting Research Associate, MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit, Population Health Sciences, University of Bristol)

The Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST) and UKRI support policy fellowships and internships in government departments and branches of Parliament. These placements can provide a wide range of benefits, from enhancing knowledge and understanding of how parliament works, to helping expand networks and developing transferable skills. PolicyBristol has been working with three researchers from different career stages to support them to apply for these positions and during the lifetime of the posts. In this blog, these researchers share some of the highlights and benefits of undertaking these roles.

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The critical role of schools in protecting vulnerable children: why schools and social workers need immediate support to respond to the effects of lockdown

Dr Victoria Sharley
Lecturer in Social Work with Children and Families

With the majority of children returning to schools this week, referrals to Children’s Services are expected to substantially rise. As Peter Walker reported in the Guardian, schools will play ‘a pivotal role in spotting neglect and abuse’.

After nearly six months away from the classroom, children who would have previously been identified as needing help and support have been invisible to staff in schools.  According to the Department for Education, the number of referrals received by Children’s Services since schools closed due to the Covid19 outbreak, has seen a dramatic reduction of 18% (compared to the last three years).

The NSPCC states that schools are vital partners in the safeguarding and protection of our children. Staff in schools have the opportunity to observe children in a range of settings, inside and outside of the classroom. Teachers and other school staff can monitor children’s behaviour daily, over an extended period of schooling, whilst observing their interactions with peers and members of their families. They are uniquely positioned to detect concerns at an early point and share information which ensures children receive the support they need at the right time.

It is therefore essential that school staff are fully supported to recognise children who are in need of additional support, and be ready to respond to those who have been living with abuse or neglect, and are in need of protection.

A new policy report by Dr Vicky Sharley (University of Bristol) highlights findings from a recent study funded by Welsh Government through Health and Care Research Wales. The report looks at how school staff identify and respond to children they suspect are living with neglect (the most common reason for a child to be on a child protection plan in England). The report sets out key recommendations for best practice across schools and child protection services, and calls for policymakers to support schools and social workers in their unique but closely related roles within the safeguarding system.

The report also outlines a new approach for the development of effective inter-agency relationships to improve safeguarding outcomes. It is essential for children’s welfare that any concerns are raised at the earliest point possible. This requires more support for school staff and social workers to develop close working relationships and excellent communication channels. Recommendations are particularly pertinent at a time when children are returning to the classroom, having been ‘hidden’ from services for more than five months and referrals are expected to soar.

You can read the full report here. The key recommendations include the following:

  • Head Teachers should be supported to establish effective learning communities within their schools so staff develop context-specific knowledge and expertise on how to respond to child neglect effectively within a school setting.
  • Schools should recruit strategic staff who demonstrate commitment to developing expertise in child neglect to promote children’s wellbeing within the school setting.
  • School staff who know the local community well should have opportunities to provide insights into the lives of children who are suspected of living with neglect.
  • Social workers should routinely provide feedback to schools on the outcome of referrals made to child protection services and the rationale for their decision not to intervene.
  • Social workers should ensure that Child Protection Conferences are not planned during school holidays, and that information is shared with new schools where children are transitioning to secondary education.
  • Informal and formal opportunities should be made available to all staff to spend time in partner agencies to support development of knowledge and expertise about service provision.
  • The local authority’s threshold guidance document should be used as a tool for reflective discussion across services, to inform professional decision making and foster a ‘shared language’, so school staff can more effectively articulate concerns in their referrals.
  • The role of the School Social Worker responds to many interprofessional barriers between schools and child protection services, and should be established in all local authorities.

This study forms the basis of Dr Sharley’s ongoing research investigating interprofessional safeguarding practices across the United Kingdom. She would be happy to answer any questions about this study or discuss her ongoing and future work in this area.

Universities need to do more to support impactful researchers

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Universities need to do more to support impactful researchers

For anyone who has worked in or on policy engagement, the image of the furiously busy policymaker will be all too familiar.

In training, case studies and even in the academic literature, this image persists: a policymaker, inundated with different priorities, brain saturated with information, inbox filled to the brim, running frantically from one meeting to the next, trying to get as much as possible done in difficult circumstances, and with limited resources.

Although I suspect it is less common, there is also an image of the academic: busy with research and teaching, they meet multitudes of students and they mark piles of essays. The academic has also has limited resources, (unless they have a handy grant), but great depth of expertise.

Much of the thinking about engaging with policymakers focuses – rightly, I think – on how to make life easy for our “furiously busy policymaker”. We write differently, more concisely, more simply, and more in stories than in facts. In short, we tailor what we do to the concerns and priorities of policymakers. There is nothing wrong with that – indeed, it seems a sensible thing.

Working with PolicyBristol: Q & A with Dr Peter Dunne, Senior Lecturer at University of Bristol Law School.

This week’s guest blog is by Dr Peter Dunne, Senior Lecturer at University of Bristol Law School.

Here he answers some questions on working with PolicyBristol, his policy-relevant work, and the importance of policy impact. Continue reading

How can researchers engage with policy?

Policymaking is a complex and messy process; the evidence base is just one factor in decision making. Image from Sausages, evidence and policymaking: The role of universities in a post-truth world, Policy Institute at Kings 2017

Blog by Dr Alisha Davies, Dr Laura Howe, Prof Debbie Lawlor, Dr Lindsey Pike

Policy engagement is becoming more of a priority in academic life, as emphasis shifts from focusing purely on academic outputs to creating impact from research. Research impact is defined by UKRI as ‘the demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to society and the economy’. Continue reading

The ‘5 Ts’ of policy engagement: PolicyBristol’s approach to supporting academics

Supporting academics across the University of Bristol to achieve policy impact from their research is a diverse and fascinating job. In the process of doing this, our team at PolicyBristol is constantly learning about new topics; from the value of NHS managers to refugee rightsenhancing peace processes to the role of universities. Continue reading