Jasmin Fox-Skelly is a freelance science writer based in Cardiff. She writes for publications such as New Scientist, BBC Earth and Sky at Night.
Jasmin recently spoke to academics who attended the LARIA conference in May, asking them about their ‘tips for collaboration’ with local government.
Earlier this year the ESRC funded five academics from UK universities to attend the Local Area Research and Intelligence Association (LARIA) conference.
LARIA is a membership body for analysts and policy officers working in local government across the UK – the city, metropolitan and borough councils that deliver public services to citizens in a particular area. The LARIA annual conference is an opportunity for people working in the public sector (local government, local authorities and councils) to come together and talk about what research they are doing, what challenges they are facing, and share tips and guidance on best practice.
The ESRC-sponsored academics attending the conference were able to learn about how ‘the other side works’ – in other words, what research needs public sector organisations have, what sort of research they do, whether there are any differences or similarities in the way they work, and if there are any opportunities for collaboration.
The benefits of collaboration
The conference really highlighted how both academics and local authorities could benefit from working together.
“One of the things that struck me as an academic, is how much information and data local authorities have access to,” says Jane Atterton, a researcher who attended the conference, and who manages the Rural Policy Centre, based at Scotland’s Rural College. “They also have access to people – whether that’s staff, customers or residents. This could be a huge resource for academics.”
Another conference attendee Amanda Burke, a senior research associate at the University of East Anglia’s Norwich Medical School says “the couple of projects that involved academic / local authority partnership really showed that by working with local authorities, universities have a real opportunity to impact directly on practice.”
Local government could also benefit hugely from such a collaboration. It would give them the opportunity to direct research to areas of need and interest to themselves and, as a consequence, improve the services they offer to the public.
“Collaboration can help local government access the kinds of in-depth and system level understandings that would be impossible using their own resources,” says Christopher Carlton, Research Portfolio Manager at the ESRC.
The current economic climate is also ripe for collaboration. One of the central issues that came up repeatedly across the two day event was the challenges presented by extensive budget cuts to public services. This means local authorities are in need of good, rigorous research on what interventions or policies work best.
How can academics help?
There are many areas of social science in which academics could join forces with local government. For example in studying population change, demand for services, transport and housing.
“There was a great presentation that talked about how people working in care live in a totally different part of the city to those using care services,” says Jane Atterton. “They are looking at ways of providing transport as a way of matching supply and demand. It struck me that should be relatively easy to do if we work together.”
Amanda Burke says “One area of interest to both researchers and local government is joined up databases which allow you to see people’s ‘pathways’ through services. This allows you to get a better idea of what services people with multiple needs are using, rather than looking at one area in isolation.”
According to Jane Atterton, another way of researchers helping could be by providing effective evaluation. “Evaluation tends to be something tacked on to the end of a project and not taken seriously,” she says. “In a climate of budget cuts evaluation is even more important than before. Evaluations should inform what happens next rather than sitting on a shelf.”
Potential barriers to collaboration
However despite the need and opportunities for research collaboration, the conference also revealed several barriers that may need to be overcome.
These stem from the differences in the way academics and local government do research. Councils often require faster turnaround times than academics are used to, and operate under constrained budgets. To work together, academics and local government need to understand each other.
“Local government analysts often have high expectations from academic collaboration and expect for it to be the only solution to a problem rather than it forming part of a suite of solutions,” says Christopher Carlton.
One researcher who was inspired by the conference to collaborate with local government is Dr Llinos Mary Jehu from the University of Birmingham. She says, “I was struck by the vast increase in the amount of material that local government can now make available to the public and to other researchers.”
“I have now started work on a new project, which considers older people’s experiences of care and self funding. Partly as a result of attending the conference, I immediately made contact with the local authority observatory, and meetings are planned to discuss how we can work together as the project progresses.”