Perhaps universities have been underestimating their potential strengths in shaping public policy? It seems like a strange assertion. The grounds are based on understanding the rise of university policy institutes: how able are they in safeguarding independence and trust, delineating roles and operating nimbly in synch with policy cycles? Bobby Duffy, new-ish to academia, reflects here on this initial spell heading up the Policy Institute at King’s, London. Shamit Saggar
Translating, timing and trust: the view from the Policy Institute at King’s
- Professor Bobby Duffy
I’m nine months into my role as Director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, having spent the previous 20 years in private sector research and consultancy, working for governments and others on social policy issues.
Coming from this non-academic background, I’m maybe more struck than longer-term academics by the special space that universities can create in order to have a real impact on policy and practice. It makes me hugely optimistic about what more we can do in units such as the Policy Institute, which exist to translate great academic research into policy and practice impact, and to help connect academics to the key questions government and others need answered.
This rosy outlook is sometimes in contrast to the concerns you hear, with three points frequently raised.
First, people often point out the fact there are too many policy units being set up, that we’ve already reached over-supply.
This is closely related to a second fear, that it will lead to competition, where we’re fighting with each other for the same opportunities.
And then there is a third, wider group of worries, that this focus on our policy impact role will compromise the position of universities as independent institutions, or distract them from their core mission of research and teaching.
I personally don’t think any of these should be significant worries for policy units or universities more generally.
It is true there are a lot more of us working in this space. We’re currently conducting a review of the whole landscape of policy units inside and outside academia for the British Academy – and we identified 54 in the United Kingdom alone, with around half being in universities. And there definitely has been growth: many of these units have formed in the last five years.
But the review also highlights the huge range of different models – we’re not all doing the same thing or working in the same way. Some units play something closer to a public affairs role for the university, scanning for policy issues more related to HE. Others focus on executive education or postgraduate teaching, or fellowship programs, and many focus on just a selection of policy areas. We’ve plotted the units against a number of dimensions, from whether they’re reactive or proactive, multidisciplinary or not, an actual unit or a virtual network, and so on.
The overlap in practice is therefore much less than it appears. And, indeed, this varied ecosystem is itself a good thing – we’ll learn a lot about what works from following the success or otherwise of the different approaches.
Having come from a competitive environment, this is not real competition. We are often creating our own demand, highlighting new areas that need to be explored. And even where we are in similar spaces, there is nothing wrong with being pushed and challenged by others.
The supply is going up, but we’re nowhere near meeting the demand. There are so many policy issues that are under-examined, partly because of the huge vacuum created by the focus on one particular, admittedly pressing, issue in the UK (it starts with a B).
And even prior to the B-word, I think we’d all agree that we were a long way from perfectly evidence-informed policymaking. Of course, we will never get there, and that shouldn’t be our aim – policy and politics are about so much more, tied up in values, emotion and identity.
But we can and should get closer, by improving both the supply of and demand for evidence. We already know the lessons we should learn: many studies over many years have highlighted the barriers and enablers to better use of evidence.
For our own purposes, we’ve summed up these lessons in just three elements that we try to focus on: Translation – what and how to present to policymakers; Timing – an answer with 80 per cent certainty in time is better than 100 per cent certainty but too late, we need to grab our windows; and Trust – we need to remember relationships are as important in policy impact as they are in other aspects of life. Politicians, officials and academics are humans too.
Universities should not see this work as a contradiction to their core purpose. We often say we want to be more demand-led, and this is one key way to achieve this. King’s mission is to ‘Make the world a better place’, and we cannot fully exploit our potential to achieve that without engaging the people who make decisions that affect so many lives.
We are starting to see a broader change in universities, with a greater focus on societal impact, as well as teaching and research. At King’s we ground this in our ‘Service Strategy’, which encompasses the many ways in which universities can contribute to society. It helps me hugely to see the Policy Institute’s role in this context, rather than narrower definitions of impact, where we’d end up counting submissions to select committees or mentions in white papers.
This role also means that working out what we focus on is a special privilege and responsibility.