In the first of our blog series in the run up to our Conference, looking at our experiences and how we invest in knowledge, I interviewed Clive Grace, who is speaking at our Glasgow event on the 3rd December. He is part of the ESRC Local Government Knowledge Navigator, a two year project steered by Solace, the LGA and the ESRC to bring the research and local government communities closer together.
Hi Clive, what led you to a role promoting and improving knowledge development?
“I am a sometime academic, and sometime practitioner, and I believe in cross fertilising my interests. This was particularly enhanced by two reviews I have carried out, looking at the engagement between academic research and local authorities through the Local Authority Research Councils’ Initiative in 2007 and 2010.
I looked at the extent to which research councils contemplated Local Authorities, and whether grant funding took account of, or engaged with, local government. There was a marked change between the two studies. By 2010 Research Councils were reaching out to Local Authorities and lifting their game as the environment was becoming more conducive to engagement. The reviews looked at research from across the piece, and all seven research councils, looking at how research has impact. There was an interesting range of responses – the engineering council (EPSRC) asked “why would you do something that wasn’t practical?” In engineering they work very closely with the private sector, where their work has an immediate more practical problem to solve”.
What do you think the main benefits of developing your knowledge are?
“If you are doing anything serious to improve public services you have to be learning all the time, about needs, technology, demographics, and so on. All these things change constantly. Knowledge is fundamental to this learning, which is integral to ensure that public services are changing to meet needs. It is the main benefit of knowledge development.
Good examples of this can be found in the report, such as work carried out by Enfield in understanding the economic drivers affecting their communities, working out how best to change them and get projects for local employment and inward investment, and gaining better understanding of economic forces. They use a wide range of different experts and academic partners”.
When people are talking to you about evidence, research or knowledge, what do they most frequently raise as issues?
“The difference in timescales between researchers and practitioners is a key issue. Practitioners need immediate findings. They are impatient for results and keen to find and implement answers. Researchers are on a different timescale, often longer than the policy cycle allows them to be.
Research often hides and obfuscates its relevance, and it is not disseminated in ways likely to make it accessible. The Research Excellence Framework is creating a lot more encouragement and focus for doing this better”.
What are the hard to spot mistakes when it comes to developing your knowledge, which we really need to avoid?
“This depends on what they are doing and trying to achieve. For a Local Authority Chief Executive I would emphasise the importance of investing in the functional area of research, and resist cutting research capacity. It is important for LAs to develop a knowledge based culture. Those involved in research and knowledge development are not always immediately visible to CEOs, and it is important to equip their councils with the skills of how to be an informed client and stimulator of research ideas.
There are some great exemplars amongst LAs but in many areas research capability is weaker now, although it’s difficult to be really clear about the amount of actual capacity which exists.
As a research commissioner in a LA it’s important to avoid the parochial and not focus on a particularly local issue, and instead to create broader based research to leverage the resource base available by working with others, and to tackle questions with wider relevance.
With universities it is important to recognise the return on investment there can be from working collaboratively with Local Authorities, and the impact that can be achieved”.
How do you think people will be doing evidence, research and knowledge development in 5 years’ time?
“The reality is that much of it may not look terribly different – there may be no dramatic changes in the way that Research Councils work, or in the deployment of funding. Many of the instruments used may stay, such as studentships. However, the impact agenda initiated by the REF will be working through. However, the role of impact officers will have grown. They will be generating projects and recording good practice through things like the Impact Accelerator Accounts, and this will be a positive change.
The real difference will be in digital technology, especially its impact on dissemination and the operating environment. Digital doesn’t just change aspects of the work – it creates an entirely novel environment”.
If you had a list of ‘best-kept secrets’ about research, evidence and knowledge you would recommend, what would you include and why?
“The best kept non-secret is the £4bn available to research councils and the impact it has, and the potential for local government to exploit it. It’s a fantastic asset. Government and the research councils are putting considerable effort into sweating this asset, but there is still a long way to go for local government to get anywhere close.
Another best kept secret is how effective a research-based approach can be rather than those based on opinion and attitude. In the medium to long term, a research-based approach has the greatest prospect of success”.
If you would like to hear Clive speak about his work and the work of the Knowledge Navigators, sign up to our free conference in December here.