Why we wonk – a case study

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In many ways the Industrial Strategy Commission (run by Policy@Manchester and SPERI at the University of Sheffield) has been an extreme piece of wonkery. First off it’s about Industrial Strategy – which is pretty wonkish in itself – and secondly, it has involved detailed analysis of data and some technical policymaking. We believe it’s incredibly important to the wellbeing of everyone in the country, even if most people don’t know it, yet.

The report is available at the website and there are recommendations on how Government is structured, how it makes policy, as well as specific ideas such as an Office for Strategic Economic Management, and a Universal Basic Infrastructure (note that the difference between this and the wonkishly fashionable Universal Basic Income is that the latter is individually based, whereas we believe a collective approach will yield better results, especially in those places left behind by technological change and economic change).

Our recommendations come from clear evidence that we are an outlier economy in our levels of regional inequality, and that given the current economic and political climate, any industrial strategy has to do something about it. That doesn’t mean reproducing everything everywhere, but it does mean doing something everywhere.

There are also some lessons to be learned from the process of forming and running the commission, as well as what it has said. They are valuable for universities about how they can best engage with the policy world, as well as for those in government who create and oversee higher education policy

Appoint of view

We may have been a little self-aggrandising to call ourselves a commission and to appoint ourselves as commissioners, but it’s proved an interesting model. We weren’t the first universities to come up with the idea – Warwick University ran a very successful inquiry into the Arts and Creative industries a couple of years ago. Furthermore, many think tanks, learned societies and professional associations have also run commissions over the years. Nevertheless, it has been gratifying to work this way. Policy impact – which we at Policy@Manchester and SPERI practice and research – can often be seen as reductionist, dumbing down complex research into short blogs or op eds. Of course, it can be like that some of the time and that can often work very well, but it’s nice to offer another more expansive approach from time to time.

It has been incredibly stimulating to collaborate so closely across two universities, with a group of committed researchers and in Kate Barker, a fantastic chair. Throughout our work we have had excellent access to civil servants at BEIS, HMT and many others. Too many people to thank here have given an extraordinary amount of time, expertise and insight to the process. Anyone cynical about policymaking or policymakers would have been disappointed by the time, effort and honesty on offer.

A massive pain

But I’ll admit that at times it’s also been a massive pain in the arse – with short deadlines at inconvenient times when everything else in academia carries on regardless. Keeping to a timetable that is meaningful to policymakers is bloody hard work. Lots of time is required to do visits, to hear from witnesses as well as in writing, deliberating, and redrafting line by line…

Day-to-day there are thousands of reasons why you might not want to get involved, and there are very few resources to do this kind of work. We will all have to retro-publish a few more academic articles to get even close to the REF, despite the impact we feel we’ve already had. God only knows how a KEF will help.

But at another level, this kind of work has never been more important. This is important and timely policy engagement that is likely to occupy government and to universities for years to come. We’ve tried our best to take a real-world problem and crunch through the issues in timescales that fit the policy cycle. BEIS and HMT may not use any of the recommendations, but at least they have the opportunity to consider them and against the framework and the timescales that they have set out.

The current higher education system does not do very much to incentivise such work. When so much of current policy looks to nail down every pound and every hour, it’s much easier not to bother. It’s easier to stand back and criticise what government does or doesn’t do. It’s easier to be cynical about the break-neck speed of policymaking, and to decry a lack of detail, thought or understanding. Too often current systems within institutions as well as within government will get in the way of such engagement. In today’s world, with the scale of the political and economic challenges that we face, that desperately needs fixing.

War of the wonks

If we are in a cultural war, between ‘experts’ and ‘populists’ or between ‘somewheres’ and ‘anywheres’, then universities need to find more ways to organise and present their knowledge and expertise and to better position it in both political and public conversations. We might consider this as the return of the experts – with a redoubled conviction that we must play such a role, no matter how much some might want us not to do so. It’s also the best way we can remind a world that questions our value that we matter, have relevant and valuable knowledge and can make ourselves heard.

These are important but difficult issues. It is a little too hard at present to find the resources required for real policy impact. It might get harder still as funding and autonomy come under further pressure in the years ahead. But we will all be a great deal poorer if we don’t get this right. So the final recommendation from the Industrial Strategy Commission to policymakers in UKRI, OFS, BEIS and DFE is that we are all here to help and keen to do so. It would be great if they could find ways to make that just a little bit easier to do. It’s why we wonk.

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