How the Open Innovation Partnership is helping academics shape policy

The late Cabinet Secretary Lord Heywood once wrote that he was “frustrated we don’t make better use of academics”. This sentiment was repeated by the minister for universities and science Chris Skidmore at the Hepi annual conference.

I know academics can sometimes feel similarly frustrated about how difficult it is to influence the policy making process. The gap between academics and policy makers can seem unbridgeable at times, with different incentives and working styles making it hard to collaborate effectively and the rapid churn of staff in Whitehall sometimes making it tough to even find out who we should speak to.

Many of these barriers to collaboration are longstanding and deep-rooted so we shouldn’t expect them to be solved overnight. Encouragingly, however, we are beginning to see signs of progress, including with one of the initiatives that Lord Heywood himself championed: the Open Innovation Partnership.

Introducing the Open Innovation Partnership

Set up in 2016, the Open Innovation Partnership saw a small team in the Cabinet Office join forces with four UK universities, including my own, to create a team of officials dedicated to helping Whitehall departments generate analysis and ideas by deepening collaboration with academics.

Following a successful two and half year pilot, in which the team tested out this partnership model and chalked up some impressive policy wins, the second phase of the Open Innovation Partnership was formally launched at Downing Street on the 18th June by Minister for Implementation, Oliver Dowden.

In this second phase Brunel, York, Essex and Lancaster are working with the Cabinet Office to develop connections between academics and policy makers in Whitehall and beyond. We partners naturally have a close relationship with the team, but they remain independent officials, bound by the Civil Service Code, and therefore work with whichever academics they feel are most appropriate for the projects they are asked to feed into.

It is a privilege for me to be leading Lancaster’s engagement with the Open Innovation Partnership, the prime objective of which is for the research and expertise of academic colleagues to inform policy development. In the pilot phase which involved four universities, projects were completed in a wide range of areas, including: industrial strategy, competition policy, mental health, women in low paid work, childcare reform, early years education and distributed ledger technology. Going forward the team’s pipeline looks equally interesting and diverse, with a host of projects, including on data ethics, trust, government innovation, machine learning and labour market reform all either under way or being scoped out.

Another important aim is to educate students and academics about the policy making process. There is an annual Policy School for students run by Cabinet Office colleagues in the grand HM Treasury building at 1 Horse Guards Road. Colleagues also visit our campus to deliver a policy masterclass for university staff which educates academics on how to successfully connect with Whitehall and influence policy.

Value for the academy

Why has Lancaster engaged in the programme? Our location means we have to work harder to connect with policy makers in London and the partnership has proven invaluable in developing relationships with Whitehall. Lancaster’s involvement aligns to, and supports, our Research Excellence Framework impact strategy. It also offers an excellent opportunity for our students to gain experience in Whitehall. Not surprisingly, the 2018 Policy School was incredibly popular, with six times more applicants than places. Colleagues from Lancaster University Management School Professor Katy Mason and Dr Chris Ford undertook an evaluation of the Open Innovation Partnership pilot and concluded it had been successful at leveraging its position at the nexus between academia-government.

By offering academics and PhD students a chance to work directly with the team, and so connect to important debates across government, the partnership secured support from 33 academic policy fellows from management and innovation disciplines, as well as 45 PhD students on three to six month internships. Mason and Ford also concluded that the suite of partnership offerings had been clarified and made accessible across Whitehall making research offers well positioned for departmental needs. One of the challenges the team are tackling going forward is tracking of projects in order to capture the impact they have realised.

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