Co-location of researchers: challenges and opportunities before and after Brexit

“International collaboration and mobility is integral to life as an active researcher across all disciplines and at all career stages.” British Academy, 2017

Collaboration is a core part of the work of researchers. In recent decades, growing numbers of researchers have taken advantage of improved mobility and support from policymakers to travel and work with others in a variety of disciplines.

The benefits of co-location

So it was interesting to read a recent toolkit on co-location of researchers, published by What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth, which looked at interventions that encourage the co-location of researchers, and considered the effectiveness of policies that specifically encourage co-location with the objective of increasing the quantity and quality of scientific output.

The toolkit’s review of evidence found that:

  • Co-location can raise the quality of research.
  • Spillovers may exist between researchers in different academic fields or commercial sectors, but the greatest positive effects of co-location occur for similar activities.
  • Science park co-location impacts positively on firm-level patenting of research, but spillover effects may die away rapidly with distance.
  • Temporary co-location (such as conferences and workshops) can also be effective in inducing collaboration and innovation.
  • Previously collaborating labs continue to work together, although the quality of research suffers with separations.

Co-location in practice

Co-location can occur within a national or international context. A good example of international research mobility in action has been highlighted in a paper published by RESEARCHconnect, which provides information on thousands of funding opportunities dedicated to the UK research community.

Fifteen partners from thirteen countries, including the USA and Canada, have joined forces to improve the capacities for marine-based research in the ice-covered Arctic Ocean. The ARICE (Arctic Research Icebreaker Consortium) project aims to better coordinate the existing polar research fleet, to offer scientists access to six research icebreakers, and to collaborate closely with the maritime industry.

For researchers, project sponsors and hosts, the importance of face-to-face collaboration on projects such as ARICE cannot be overestimated. As Dr Chris Coey, Research Development Support Officer, Division of Research and Knowledge Exchange at the University of Salford, told RESEARCHconnect:

“The advantages of international mobility are, for researchers, access to prestige networks, resources and infrastructure not available at home. Reputations are burnished, arguably in part through mobility itself, collaborations are established or reinforced and, publications and other outputs are achieved. Metrics show that these international collaborations are higher profile and higher quality.”

Of course, arranging and managing co-location can be challenging, particularly when working across languages, cultures and disciplines. And although technology provides alternative ways of exchanging information, the evidence suggests that teleconferencing is no substitute for co-location. A 2017 study of the role of international collaboration and mobility in research noted that “travel was seen to be important in building international collaborations, by helping develop stronger relationships and a broader understanding of each other’s strengths and interests.”

Co-location after Brexit

But while collaboration – particularly international collaboration – has become a key aspect of research, the UK’s decision to leave the European Union is causing uncertainty in the research community. The EU has been a significant source of research funding, and Brexit is now forcing researchers to consider alternatives.

A 2017 report from Digital Science Consultancy for Universities UK explored the challenges and opportunities facing UK research in the post-Brexit landscape. The authors noted that international collaborative partnerships in research with other EU states make up the largest pool of collaborators with UK research:

“Research undertaken with EU partners like Germany and France is growing faster than with other countries – hence while it is vital that the UK takes every opportunity to be truly global in their outlook, the importance of collaboration with EU partners should not be underestimated.”

At the same time, the report suggested that the UK should be developing new networks and funding arrangements that support collaboration with major research powers outside of Europe.

Regardless of access to EU programmes, enhanced international collaboration could be facilitated by either agreeing partner funding or at least avoiding ‘double jeopardy’ through, for example, a coordinated application process at agency level.”

Speaking to RESEARCHConnect, Dr Chris Coey also highlighted UK sources that provide an alternative to EU funding for international research:

“…this isn’t just the Research Councils but also the larger and more prestigious charitable sources such as Wellcome and the British Academy.”

 Final thoughts

As the What Works toolkit explains, co-location is one of the methods used by policymakers to help encourage the generation and diffusion of new ideas. It enables researchers to share access to expensive equipment, forge links, or simply observe – and learn from – each other.

As the UK prepares to leave the EU, research bodies and researchers themselves will be looking anxiously at the impact of Brexit, while continuing to forge strong partnerships at home and overseas.


RESEARCHconnect is the Idox group’s funding service providing information on thousands of funding opportunities dedicated to the UK and wider European research community. Focused on researchers at all levels of academia – from undergraduates to senior career researchers – and also including a spectrum of funding opportunities for universities and research institutes, the service offers a comprehensive one-stop-shop of funding information.

Five current challenges facing Further Education

As well as developing the careers of school-leavers and adults and contributing to the economy, further education (FE) also plays a crucial, but unsung role in our daily lives. As one college chief executive has observed:

“Over the past 25 years, we have quietly gone about our work producing the people that matter most to our communities – those that build our houses, fix our boilers, our computers and our cars, care for our children and our parents, ensure the planes that take us on holiday are safe and look after us when we get to our destination, cook our special meals, entertain us live and on TV, enrich our lives with their art, cut our hair and make us even more beautiful!”

But now the sector is facing key challenges that are likely to change the face of further education in the years ahead.

  1. Policy reforms

According to the Institute for Government (IfG), since the 1980s there have been:

  • 28 major pieces of legislation related to vocational, FE and skills training
  • Six different ministerial departments with overall responsibility for education
  • 48 secretaries of state with relevant responsibilities

The FE sector has proved to be resilient and adaptable to these changes, but many believe this instability has left the sector unfit for purpose.  In 2016, the Sainsbury review of technical education recommended changes to England’s FE system to make it less complex. These were taken up by the government, which introduced a new Post-16 Skills Plan. The reforms will replace thousands of qualifications with fifteen new technical education pathways. The new ‘T-Levels’, in subjects such as construction, childcare and hairdressing, will be rolled out by 2022.

It’s too early to say what effect the reforms will have, but some already have misgivings. A senior civil servant at the Department for Education has advised deferring the start date for T-Levels, while the shadow education secretary Angela Rayner argued the changes would not make up for “years of cuts” to the FE sector.

  1. Funding pressures

The Social Market Foundation reported in 2017 that, since 2010, the adult skills budget in England has fallen in cash terms. “Alongside this reduction, the Institute for Fiscal studies (IFS) has shown that 16–18 education spending has reduced.”

Funding pressures on FE are likely to continue. In August, the Treasury instructed Whitehall departments with non-protected budgets, including FE,  to identify areas of “potential savings”. David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said “The news that the chancellor may be looking for further funding cuts from unprotected departmental budgets is very worrying for colleges. College students and staff have already taken on too much pain from the funding cuts in further education over the last decade.”

The government has announced a review of post-18 education funding, including further education. The review will be supported by an independent panel, led by Philip Augar, and is expected to conclude in early 2019.

  1. New apprenticeships

The apprenticeship levy was introduced on 6 April 2017. It requires all UK employers with a wages bill of over £3 million per year to invest 0.5% of their bill into apprenticeships.

Once they start making payments, employers can access the funds through a Digital Apprenticeship Service (DAS) account that allows them to pay for apprentice training, choose the training provider they want to provide the training, and find apprentices for their vacancies. Initially, this service is only available to those employers paying the levy. However, the government aims to extend access to all employers by 2020.

In May 2018, the Reform think tank published an assessment of the apprenticeship levy’s impact in its first year of operation. The report found that in the six months after the levy was introduced, the number of people starting an apprenticeship was 162,400 – over 40% lower than the same period in the previous year. Concerns about the levy were heightened in May 2018 with official figures revealing a 40% drop in apprentice starts across all industries in February, compared with the previous year. The statistics prompted further calls for reform of the levy. However, the Learning and Work Institute (L&WI) has argued that it is still too soon to judge the new system.

  1. Devolving FE

Central government continues to control FE funding, but local authorities and Combined Authorities are pressing for greater devolution of the adult skills budget. City mayors are also showing interest in bringing more of FE and skills under local control.

At the same time, the FE sectors in, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland have been experiencing their own challenges:

  • College funding in Wales has remained tight over the last few years, but a 2017 report from Colleges Wales highlighted the economic impact of FE in Wales. It reported a return of £7.90 for every £1 spent, an average annual return on investment of 24%.
  • A report by Viewforth Consulting report estimated that the FE sector generated over £524 million of output in Northern Ireland from college and student off-campus expenditure. A new further education strategy was launched in 2016, but the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly has presented the FE sector with additional uncertainties.
  • Between 2012 and 2014, 25 colleges in Scotland merged to create ten new regional ‘super colleges’ under a Scottish Government programme to make the sector more efficient and ‘responsive to the needs of students and local economies’. According to the Scottish Funding Council, the merger programme cost £72m, but delivered annual savings of more than £52m. However, Audit Scotland’s 2017 review of further education in Scotland found that student numbers at Scotland’s colleges fell to the lowest level for almost a decade. Performance figures on Scotland’s colleges published by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) in February 2018 show that the success rate in almost two-thirds of Scottish colleges has dropped.
  1. The future

It’s clear that funding issues and policy changes will continue to affect FE in the UK. But other challenges are also looming.

The Social Market Foundation has highlighted market developments likely to present competitive threats to the FE sector. These include more employers moving in to provide training traditionally delivered by the FE sector, and the advance of educational technology, encouraging more learners to self-direct.

As for Brexit, the Association of Colleges believes the impact of the UK leaving the European Union may be less in FE than in other areas of national life,  but forecasts that Brexit has the potential to bring big changes to the demand for skills and training.


The Knowledge Exchange provides information services to local authorities, public agencies, research consultancies and commercial organisations across the UK. 

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What will councils and community groups do for funding after Brexit?

With a recent study indicating that the majority of local authorities have made no provision for Brexit in their medium-term budgets, there is now a real risk for councils if a ‘no deal’ scenario goes ahead after 29 March 2019. So what does a potential black hole in funding mean for local authorities already beleaguered by austerity?

A recent paper from GRANTfinder, the leading authority on grants and funding in the UK, examines this question and why councils need to be preparing now.

The extent to which the public sector is failing to prepare for Brexit is alarming given that local areas were meant to receive over £8bn in EU funding from 2014 to 2020 from sources such as the European Regional Development Fund and the European Social Fund, and the UK Government has not yet provided detail on replacement funding streams.

What many people may not be aware of however, is that funding applications under EU schemes can be submitted up until the date that the UK leaves the European Union on 29 March 2019. So, there are still nearly eight months left in which councils and local groups can apply for, and benefit from, EU funding.

The full paper considers how local authorities may best attract funding to their local areas through applying to EU funding whilst the current arrangements still apply, as well as considering alternative funding sources beyond the EU. Usefully, it also identifies key types of local authority projects which commonly attract support.

Although it’s clear that councils are facing considerable financial uncertainty, and many are creating their own risk and Brexit impact assessments as a result, there is still funding support available. Given the short timescale and tight resources within councils however, it makes sense to turn to expert help and tools to identify where funding for local areas and community groups could be sourced. In this respect, GRANTfinder is relied upon by councils across the country to help secure investment.


Read the full guide via the GRANTfinder website. Our GRANTfinder colleagues work across the UK and in Europe to help councils, community groups, businesses and universities to source funding. They also provide training and consultancy in grant application processes and bid writing.

University challenges: excellence, inclusion and the race to win more funding

In May last year, Manchester University announced plans to make 171 staff redundant. Cost savings were among the reasons for the staff cutbacks, but the university also highlighted other factors, including the need for improvements in the quality of its research and student experience to ensure financial sustainability, and to achieve its ambition to be a world leading institution.

Although Manchester was able to achieve its staff reductions through voluntary severance, other universities have also had to announce staff cutbacks,  including Portsmouth, Liverpool, Heriot-Watt and Southampton. And these institutions are not alone in facing such demanding challenges.

Higher education institutions across the UK are competing against each other and against international rivals to attract funding and students. At the same time, universities, particularly among the prestigious Russell Group institutions, are under pressure to increase participation by more black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students, and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. All of this is set against a background of debates about value for money in higher education, and concerns about Brexit. It’s no surprise that many universities are worried about their future.

Competition: national…

Recent changes to the higher education sector, such as the removal of the cap on student numbers, the entry of private sector providers, and the introduction of a teaching excellence framework have driven universities to become more competitive. Some have built new facilities, or joined forces with business to create technology parks, while others have closed departments that are expensive to run, such as modern languages. A growing number are also turning to financial markets to fund their expansion plans.

…and international

While UK universities have a world-class reputation, they face strong competition from overseas institutions. This year’s world university rankings reported that of the 76 UK universities in the worldwide top 1000, 41 improved their position since last year, while 14 remained in the same position. But while this was the best ever UK performance the compilers of the rankings warned that rising class sizes and the UK’s ability to attract overseas students post-Brexit could have a negative impact on future placings. It’s also becoming clear that global league tables themselves are having an impact on universities.

Added to this, the uncertainty over Brexit is already having an impact on university research funding. Official figures published at the end of 2017 showed that there had been a downturn in both UK participation in, and funding from, the flagship Horizon 2020 project. The need to find alternative sources of funding is pressing, as can be seen in the success of RESEARCHconnect, a tool to help universities identify and manage funding opportunities.

The struggle to widen participation

The proportion of people going to university has risen dramatically in the past fifty years. In the 1960s, five per cent of young people went into higher education; today, around half of young people do. Universities have committed themselves to widen participation, but the statistics suggest they are struggling to achieve this, particularly concerning students from BAME and disadvantaged communities.

Figures published earlier this year recorded a 0.1 percentage point increase in the proportion of state-educated students who started full-time undergraduate courses in the autumn of 2016, compared with the previous year. The statistics showed a slight rise in the proportion of students from disadvantaged areas, but critics have argued that this was cancelled out by the fall in part-time students (who are more likely to be from disadvantaged backgrounds). In nine out of the 24 Russell Group of universities, the proportion of state school pupils fell.

Further evidence of the country’s leading universities’ difficulties in widening participation has been brought to light by David Lammy MP. His enquiries on the number of ethnic minority students offered a place at Oxford and Cambridge Universities have found that more than a third of Oxford’s colleges admitted three or fewer black applicants between 2015 and 2017. For each of the six years between 2010 and 2015, on average, a quarter of Cambridge University colleges failed to make any offers to black British applicants.

Moving away from “one size fits all”

The government says it is determined to ensure that everyone, no matter what their background, has a fulfilling experience of higher education. In 2018, the new Office for Students (OfS) was launched, merging the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Office for Fair Access. The OfS aims to regulate higher education in the same way that bodies such as Ofwat and Ofcom regulate the water and telecoms sectors. Its Director of Fair Access and Participation has a particular remit to ensure that higher education institutions are doing all they can to support under-represented groups.

A 2018 report has suggested that the OfS “has the potential to be an agent of profound change, particularly with regard to widening participation.” Among the reports contributors, there was a consensus that widening participation needs to be thought of with a broader scope:

“…‘one size fits all’ solutions will not work if we wish to make higher education representative of the diverse society it serves. Different groups such as care leavers, refugees or those with physical disabilities or mental health problems have different needs, and support should be tailored accordingly.”

Changing the face of higher education

Clearly higher education is facing enormous challenges. But for staff and students of universities, there are concerns about the forces of change that are transforming universities from communities of learners and scholars into businesses.  Alison Wolf, professor of public sector management at King’s College London, has commented:

“If the driving ethos, the thing which directs your behaviour day on day is maximising your income, maximising your position in the league tables in order to maximise your reputation and your fees, that means that you behave in a way that is very different from a traditional university where that wasn’t the driving force. You do get the sense that if that is 90 per cent of what is being thought about by central management, you are fundamentally changing the institution.”

Time will tell whether those changes are for better or for worse.


RESEARCHconnect supports universities, research institutions and research-intensive companies across Europe in identifying and disseminating R&D funding. In the current economic climate, there is increasing pressure to exploit alternative funding sources and RESEARCHconnect ensures that global funding opportunities will not be missed. Find out more.

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The year that was: looking back on a year of policy and practice on The Knowledge Exchange blog

Before bidding farewell to 2017, there’s just time to reflect on some of the issues we’ve been covering in The Knowledge Exchange blog during the past twelve months. There’s been no shortage of subjects to consider, from health and social care and devolution to  universal credit and town planning.

Missing EU already?
Of course, the major issue dominating policy in the UK this year has been Brexit. In July, we reviewed a new book by Professor Janet Morphet which assessed the UK’s future outside the European Union. While not claiming to have all the answers, the book provides a framework for making sure the right questions are asked during the negotiation period and beyond.

One important consideration concerning Brexit is its potential impact on science, technology and innovation. In August, we noted that, while the UK government has been making efforts to lessen the concerns of researchers, anxieties remain about funding and the status of EU nationals currently working in science and technology roles in the UK.

Home thoughts, from home and abroad
Throughout the year, we’ve been looking at the UK’s chronic housing crisis. In May, we considered the potential for prefabricated housing to address housing shortages, while in August, we looked at the barriers facing older people looking to downsize from larger homes. In October, we reported on the growing interest in co-housing.

The severe shortage of affordable housing has had a significant impact on homelessness, and not only in the UK. In April, we highlighted a report which documented significant rises in the numbers of homeless people across Europe, including a 50% increase in homelessness in France, and a 75% increase in youth homelessness in Copenhagen.

One European country bucking this trend is Finland, and in July our blog looked at the country’s success in reducing long term homelessness and improving prevention services. Although the costs of Finland’s “housing first” approach are considerable, the results suggest that it’s paying off: the first seven years of the policy saw a 35% fall in long term homelessness.

Keeping mental health in mind
A speech by the prime minister on mental health at the start of the year reflected growing concerns about how we deal with mental illness and its impacts. Our first blog post of 2017 looked at efforts to support people experiencing mental health problems at work. As well as highlighting that stress is one of the biggest causes of long-term absence in the workplace, the article provided examples of innovative approaches to mental illness by the construction and social work sectors.

A further post, in August pointed to the importance of joining up housing and mental health services, while in September we explored concerns that mobile phone use may have negative effects on the mental health of young people.

Going digital
Another recurring theme in 2017 was the onward march of digital technologies. In June, we explored the reasons why the London Borough of Croydon was named Digital Council of the Year. New online services have generated very clear benefits: in-person visits to the council have been reduced by 30% each year, reducing staffing costs and increasing customer satisfaction from 57% to 98%.

Also in June, we reported on guidance published by the Royal Town Planning Institute on how planners can create an attractive environment for digital tech firms. Among its recommendations: planners should monitor the local economy to get a sense of what local growth industries are, and local authorities should employ someone to engage with local tech firms to find out how planning could help to better facilitate their growth.

Idox in focus
Last, but not least, we’ve continued to update our readers on new and continuing developments at the Idox Information Service. Our blog has featured articles on the Research Online, Evaluations Online and Ask-a-Researcher services, as well as the Social Policy and Practice database for evidence and research in social care. We were proud once again to sponsor the 2017 RTPI Research Excellence awards, and highlighted the winning entries. And following an office move, in September we explored the fascinating history behind the building where we now do business.

Back to the future
2018 is already shaping up as an important year in policy and practice. One important issue exercising both the public and private sectors is preparing for the General Data Protection Regulation. The Knowledge Exchange blog will be keeping an eye on this and many other issues, and the Idox Information Service, will be on hand to ensure our members are kept informed throughout 2018 and beyond.

Thank you for reading our blog posts in 2017, and we wish all of our readers a very Happy Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous New Year.


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Highlights of the SPEL conference 2017

This year’s Scottish Planning and Environmental Law conference, held in Edinburgh’s COSLA building, focused on Anticipating and preparing for change and covered a range of topics from the impact of Brexit on planning and environmental law in Scotland to how planning and planners can help tackle the growing housing crisis. Delegates were given the opportunity to reflect on the challenges for planning and environmental law in Scotland as well as the great opportunities the next few years may present to the profession.

Bringing the planning profession together

The conference provided an opportunity for professionals from across the planning and law professions to come together to discuss some of the key challenges to their profession going forward. While Brexit was high on the list of discussion topics, the possibilities for reform, and the opportunities for practitioners to learn and share their experiences and knowledge with one another, for what is now the 26th year of SPEL, continued to be at the heart of the conference discussions.

Is planning fit for purpose?

Chaired by Stuart Gale QC, from event sponsors Terra Firma Chambers, the conference was opened by Greg Lloyd who addressed the issue of the “distinctiveness” of the Scottish planning system, asking the question, “Is planning fit for purpose?” In the context of Brexit and with the benefit of years of planning knowledge, Greg discussed the performance of planning and how its modernisation is equipping planners to deal with challenges in the future.

The Rt. Hon Brian Wilson, former UK energy minister, spoke next on the challenges energy targets are posing not only for environmental lawyers and practitioners but also for planners. He discussed how the drive to achieve energy targets both in renewable and traditional energy generation needs to be tackled as much by planners as environmentalists and politicians. He also highlighted the need to meet the growing demand for energy by helping to reduce energy use and tackle wider socioeconomic issues relating to energy in Scotland.

Brexit – the impact on planning

The morning session was brought to a close firstly by Laura Tainsh from Davidson Chalmers who spoke about the intricacies, expectations, challenges and potential opportunities for environmental law and practitioners in Scotland following the UK’s decision to leave the EU. She highlighted the importance of ensuring that the essential elements of environmental law are retained within any future UK or Scottish legislation and that a system is created which provides an opportunity for robust scrutiny and maintenance of standards, specifically in relation to the consistency of application. She also discussed some of the ways in which existing principles and policies can be future proofed. Following on from Laura, Robert Sutherland gave an overview of recent developments in community right to buy in Scotland.

The morning session also included a case law roundup which reviewed and discussed recent significant cases including: RSPB vs Scottish Ministers (2017); Douglas vs Perth and Kinross Council (2017); and Wildland ltd vs Scottish Ministers (2017).

Delivering new housing

The afternoon opened with a panel session, where speakers tackled the million-dollar question of whether planning reform will assist in the delivery of new homes to help tackle the growing housing crisis. Speakers from Renfrewshire council, the University of Glasgow, house builder Taylor Wimpey, and Rettie & Co. discussed a range of topics from barriers to the delivery of homes and infrastructure, to the setting of national housebuilding targets, as well as the challenge of building the right sort of housing, in the right place at the right cost, and the role of local authorities in meeting housing need.

The afternoon session included a second case law roundup which saw review and discussion of recent significant cases including: Taylor Wimpey vs Scottish Ministers (2016); Angus Estates (Carnoustie) LLP vs Angus Kinross Council (2017); and Hopkins Homes Ltd. vs Scottish Ministers (2017).

The role of planning in driving inclusive growth

The conference was closed by self-professed “economic agitator” Ross Martin, who discussed the role of planning more widely within Scotland’s economy and its role as an agent for driving inclusive growth. He stressed the need for planners and other related professionals to look at the “bigger picture” when it comes to planning, using the system as the engine for growth and development, rather than as a barrier, and challenged those in the room to think creatively about how planning can play a role in strategic, but inclusive growth in Scotland going forward.

Some of the key points of discussion to come out of the conference were:

  • Planners, and planning lawyers need to recognise the importance of the wider social and economic context on their decision making, even if that decision only relates to one single building
  • Brexit is providing a lot of uncertainty and raising a lot of questions about the future of planning and environmental law in Scotland and the UK as a whole, but it may provide an opportunity for practitioners to take the lead and shape the system in a way that better suits current needs
  • There is scope and appetite, following the UK’s decision to leave the EU, to create a specialist planning and environmental law court to help scrutinise decisions and fill the void left by the EU in terms of accountability and implementation of environmental law, practice and strategy going forward

SPEL Journal is a bi- monthly journal published by the Idox Information Service. The journal is unique in covering all aspects of planning and environmental law in Scotland. Each issue contains articles on new legislation, significant court cases, expert comment on key planning appeals, government circulars and guidance, ombudsman cases and book reviews. SPEL deals with matters of practical concern to practitioners both in the public and private sector. Please contact Christine Eccleson at christine.eccleson@idoxgroup.com if you are interested in learning more about the journal or our subscription rates.

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Delivering digital transformation: the mixed successes of the Government Digital Service

By Steven McGinty

It’s been a period of change for the Government Digital Service (GDS) since losing influential Executive Director Mike Bracken in 2015. Since then, the service has experienced a string of high profile departures, leading many commentators to suggest that the much-lauded GDS could soon be coming to an end.

However, in the November 2015 Spending Review, then Chancellor George Osborne announced that the GDS would receive an extra £450 million over four years – a significant increase on their previous budget of £58 million per year.

Chancellor Osborne highlighted that these additional funds would help fuel a “digital revolution” in central government, and in particular create one of the most digitally advanced tax administrations in the world.

But has new funding – and possibly the public show of support – led to a digital revolution?

In the beginning….

In 2011, the GDS was formed to implement the ‘digital by default’ strategy – a key proposal of UK Digital Champion (and founder of lastminute.com) Martha Lane Fox’s report into the delivery of online public services.

The GDS’s first major project, GOV.UK, has in many ways proved to be a success. Launched in 2012, the publishing platform brought together over 300 government agencies and arm’s length bodies’ websites within 15 months. Replacing DirectGov and Business Link alone has saved more than £60m a year. Early testing showed GOV.UK was simpler for users, with 61% completing tasks on the new Business Link section; compared to 46% on the old website.

GOV.UK has also been viewed as an example of best practice, with GDS team members supporting countries such as New Zealand with their own digital government efforts.

However, it’s not been entirely without its controversies. In October 2016, the Welsh language commissioner accused the UK government of weakening Welsh language services, explaining that provision on the site had “deteriorated astonishingly” since the introduction of GOV.UK. A recent GDS blog article has also identified challenges in making content accessible for users. For example, 73% of the content on GOV.UK is looked at by fewer than 10 people per month.

Government as a platform

A major theme of the GDS’s work has been the introduction of a platform approach to digital government – principles proposed by technology guru Tim O’Reilly. In 2015, Mike Bracken set out a new vision for digital government, highlighting the need to create:

“A common core infrastructure of shared digital systems, technology and processes on which it’s easy to build brilliant, user-centric government services.”

GOV.UK is one such service.

But the concept has gone on to inspire new services such as GOV.UK Verify – a platform which enables citizens to prove who they are when using government services. This common service was a world first and is being used by organisations such as HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

Additionally, GOV.UK Notify – a service which sends text messages, emails or letters – was introduced in January 2016. It helped support the Valuation Office Agency (VOA) transition some of their services to online only, as it provided them with the ability to send thousands of notifications at the one time.

National Audit Office

On 30 March 2017, the National Audit Office (NAO) published a report into the government’s track record on digital transformation.

The report concluded that the GDS had an early impact across government, successfully reshaping the government’s approach to technology and transformation. However, Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, also observed that:

“Digital transformation has a mixed track record across government. It has not yet provided a level of change that will allow government to further reduce costs while still meeting people’s needs. To achieve value for money and support transformation across government, GDS needs to be clear about its role and strike a balance between robust assurance and a more consultative approach.”

In particular, the NAO highlights concerns over the GOV.UK Verify programme. The service has proven difficult to adopt for some departments, which has led to the GDS allowing the use of alternate identity services. According to the NAO, this significantly undermines the business case for GOV.UK Verify, and provides a poorer experience for users on government websites.

The Institute for Government

Influential think tank, the Institute for Government (IfG), has recently published two reports on the progress of digital transformation.

In October 2016, the report ‘Making a success of digital government’ estimated that the UK Government could save up to £2 billion by 2020 – through efficiency savings – by creating better digital services. Major digital transformation successes were also highlighted, including the online registration to vote by 1.3 million people by May 2016, and the introduction of a new digital road tax system (removing the need for paper disks).

In terms of the GDS, the IfG expressed similar views to the NAO:

“We found that GDS has played an important role in bringing new digital capability into government. But, in the absence of a new digital strategy, its role is unclear. GDS needs to re-equip itself to support a government that now has rapidly developing digital capability, and high ambitions for change.”

In February 2017, the government published a new digital transformation strategy, including attempting to clarify the ‘evolving’ role of the GDS.

However, this hasn’t stopped the IfG making several new recommendations for the GDS in their latest digital government report. These include:

  • clarifying the GDS standards and distinguishing between standards and guidance;
  • re-examining the role of the Government Gateway – an identity assurance platform – and of GOV.UK Verify;
  • taking a more active role in the digital services market, such as designing the Digital Marketplace for different users; and
  • creating a store for Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to encourage their use throughout the public sector.

Final thoughts

The GDS has played a vital role in creating a new vision for digital government. However, evidence has suggested that over recent years the pace of change has slowed, with key initiatives such as GOV.UK Verify facing a variety of challenges.

In the coming years, it’s likely that the Brexit negotiations will be top priority for politicians and many government departments. It will be important that the GDS works with these departments and looks to prioritise services that are vital for managing the Brexit process.


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Science, technology and innovation: the impact of Brexit

Scientist working with a large cylinder-shaped piece of lab equipmentBy Steven McGinty

There have been many twists and turns in the Brexit story. The latest, has been Theresa’s May’s failed attempt to increase her parliamentary majority and gain a personal mandate for negotiating her own version of Brexit.

However, since the UK voted to leave the EU in June 2016, STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) researchers and professionals have consistently voiced their concerns over the potential negative impacts of Brexit, particularly in areas such as funding, collaboration and skills.

Prospect – a union for 50,000 scientists, engineers and technical specialists – has made it clear that they believe:

Science is an international endeavour and continued free movement of people is vitally important both to the public interest and the wider economy.”

Their research highlights that British participation in prestigious Europe-wide research projects could be under threat, such as the mission to find the ‘oldest ice’ in Antarctica and the European Space Agency’s project to develop the most ambitious satellite Earth observation programme.

The Financial Times also highlights that British researchers have been very successful at winning important grants from the European Research Council. As a result, the UK receives 15.5% of all EU science funding – a disproportionate return on the UK’s 12% contribution to the overall EU budget.

Professor Dr Carsten Welsch, an academic from Liverpool University, underlines how essential EU funding is to his work: “in some years as much as 80% of our funding has been sourced from the EU.

Figures from technology consultancy Digital Science suggest that leaving the EU could cost UK scientists £1bn per year.

Universities UK has also investigated the wider economic impacts of EU funding in the UK. In 2016, their research found that EU funding generates more than 19,000 jobs across the UK, adding £1.86 billion to the UK economy. Later research has also shown that international students and their visitors generate £25.8 billion in gross output for the UK economy. In addition, as a single group, they add £690 million to the UK retail industry.

What do the politicians say?

With their ‘Save our Scientists’ campaign, the Liberal Democrats have been outspoken in their support for continued scientific co-operation across Europe. Their 2017 General Election manifesto stated that they would underwrite funding for British partners in EU-funded projects such as Horizon 2020 – the largest ever EU Research and Innovation programme – worth nearly €80 billion in funding. It also promised to protect and raise the science budget by inflation, and stop cuts to medical research.

But the UK government has also made efforts to lessen the concerns of STEM researchers and professionals. Similarly, Chancellor Philip Hammond has guaranteed to underwrite EU funding won by UK organisations through programmes such as Horizon 2020, even if these projects continue after Brexit. On the 17th January, Prime Minister Theresa May outlined her 12 objectives for negotiating the UK’s exit from the EU. Within this speech, she stated that:

We will welcome agreement to continue to collaborate with our European partners on major science, research and technology initiatives, for example in space exploration, clean energy and medical technologies.”

Jo Johnson, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, has also tried to provide reassurance by emphasising the important role for science and innovation in the government’s industrial strategy. He has highlighted that the strategy includes £229 million of funding for a ‘world class’ materials research centre at the University of Manchester and a centre for excellence for life sciences. In addition, a new funding body will be created – UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) – which will bring together several funding councils to create a ‘loud and powerful’ voice for science.

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has also published a report arguing that positive steps should be taken to ensure UK science plays a significant role in the global economy. One idea put forward by the report is that:

The UK should offer to host – in partnership with governments and funding bodies from other countries – one or more new, large-scale international research facilities. This would be a bold move to signal the UK’s global standing in science.

International partners – David Johnston Research + Technology Park

At a recent innovation event in Glasgow, Carol Stewart, Business Development Manager of David Johnston Research and Technology Park, set out the thoughts of researchers and companies based at their innovative research park in Waterloo, Canada. Unsurprisingly, their key concern was restrictions on the free movement of labour, and the impact Brexit might have on the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).

However, Ms Stewart was positive that there would still be plenty of opportunities, noting that the UK and Canada has a relationship as part of the Commonwealth, and that London will still be regarded as a global technology hub.

Overcoming negative sentiment

One important concern is that there is widespread anecdotal evidence that EU nationals are feeling less welcome. Stories of researchers either leaving positions or citing Brexit as a reason for not taking up posts in the UK are becoming the norm. Anxieties caused by a lack of clarity over the long-term status of EU nationals and the complexities in obtaining permanent residency, can only be damaging to the UK’s reputation for international science.  As physicist and TV presenter Professor Brian Cox explains:

We have spent decades – centuries arguably – building a welcoming and open atmosphere in our universities and, crucially, presenting that image to an increasingly competitive world. We’ve been spectacularly successful; many of the world’s finest researchers and teachers have made the UK their home, in good faith. A few careless words have already damaged our carefully cultivated international reputation, however. I know of few, if any, international academics, from within or outside the EU, who are more comfortable in our country now than they were pre-referendum. This is a recipe for disaster.

With the latest election results, the UK is likely to go through a period of political instability. It will be important  that, regardless of political changes, the UK continues to exercise its role as a leader in science, technology and innovation. That not only means providing funding and facilities for research, but also rebuilding the UK’s reputation as a place where the very best scientists and innovators want to live and work.


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Beyond Brexit? How to assess the UK’s future – a new resource

The EU flag, with the Brexit on it appear, in the form of a jigsaw puzzle.

By Steven McGinty

Although Brexit negotiations are officially underway, there is no clear vision of how the UK will look once it’s left the European Union.  Politicians – including those within government – appear to be divided on the issue, with Chancellor Philip Hammond’s wish for a softer Brexit seemingly at odds with Brexit Secretary David Davis and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.

This uncertainty has left businesses, local authorities, and the general public struggling to plan for the future, and in search of answers to help navigate these difficult Brexit waters.

One valuable resource they may turn to is Professor Janice Morphet’s new book, Beyond Brexit? How to assess the UK’s future.

In this short guide, Professor Morphet – an expert in infrastructure, the EU and public policy – takes a long term view and attempts to understand the whole range of options that may be deployed by the UK, EU, and other international institutions.

Below we’ve outlined some of the main themes of the book.

Implications for devolved nations and territories

The impact of the EU referendum result has been strongly felt by the devolved nations and territories.

For example, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has argued that Scotland (where 62% voted to stay in the EU) should be recognised in the Brexit negotiations, and that Scotland should be allowed to come to an arrangement on continued EU membership.

Similarly, Gibraltar (where 96% voted in favour of remaining in the EU) is looking to retain access to the EU’s single market and free access across the EU border. There have also been diplomatic tensions, with the suggestion that there should be no UK/EU agreement – that includes Gibraltar – without the consent of Spain.

But beyond these specific issues, Professor Morphet raises the wider point that EU legislation is a fundamental component of specific devolved powers.

This is because much of the powers devolved to Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales are derived from legislation initially agreed within the EU. In Professor Morphet’s view, devolved nations will need clarification on how they’d retain decision-making powers, including whether a new set of powers would need to be introduced. One suggestion discussed is the need to create a federal constitution guaranteeing the devolution arrangements.

Benefits of the EU

During the referendum campaign there was limited discussion on the value of EU membership. Even the Remain campaign focused on the negative impact of leaving, rather than the positive impact of being a member of the EU.

Professor Morphet provides an authoritative look at some of these benefits, including the:

  • importance of being inside the world’s largest market;
  • ability to engage diplomatically as part of a global diplomatic group;
  • development of an EU-wide energy policy, ensuring energy security; and
  • commitment to achieving higher environmental stands across the EU.

Options for future UK/EU institutional relationships

Much of the UK’s future relationship with the EU will be dependent on the current Brexit negotiations. As such, it’s unclear whether the UK will achieve a bespoke arrangement with the EU, gain an agreement similar to another country (such as the Norway or the Swiss models) or if there will be any deal at all.

Professor Morphet discusses this wide variety of options, and considers some of the challenges for the UK Government – who at the moment appear undecided on how far outside the EU they would like to be.

Immediate actions that must be taken by the UK

Before the EU Referendum result many high profile individuals and institutions claimed the UK economy would collapse. This included former Chancellor George Osborne, who suggested there would need to be an emergency Brexit Budget, and the Bank of England’s governor Mark Carney, who warned that the UK risked heading into a recession.

However, even though the economic slowdown has not occurred, there have been signs that the referendum result has impacted the UK on a variety of levels. For instance, Professor Morphet highlights that there has been an effective 11-16% devaluation of the pound, and that inflation is likely to rise in 2017. For her, stabilising the economy should be the priority for the UK government, arguing that it needs to offer a clear view of Brexit to reduce the political uncertainty.

Final thoughts

Professor Morphet’s latest book is a must read for anyone with an interest in how the country will look post Brexit. By her own admittance, the book does not provide all the answers, but it does provide a framework for making sure the right questions are asked during the negotiation period and beyond.


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General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR): what the public sector needs to consider

Graphic design image: three padlocks in front of a futuristic city.

By Steven McGinty

In March, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) published the results of a survey into local government information governance as part of their preparations for the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which comes into force on 25 May 2018.

Although the ICO notes that many local authorities have good data protection policies, there are still councils where work needs to be done. The survey findings include:

  • A third of councils do not undertake Privacy Impact Assessments (PIAs)
  • 26% of councils do not have a data protection officer
  • 50% do not require data protection training before accessing systems

Under the new GDPR the above findings could constitute a breach, and result in the ICO taking action against the offending council. Recently, the ICO fined Norfolk County Council £60,000 (under the Data Protection Act) for failing to dispose of social work case files appropriately.

What impact will Brexit have on the GDPR?

The UK Government has finally triggered article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, starting the process for leaving the European Union (EU). However, this does not mean that the UK will escape the European Commission’s GDPR. Digital minister, Matt Hancock, has confirmed that it is in the UK’s best interests to ensure the ‘uninterrupted and unhindered flow of data’, stating that the GDPR would be fully implemented into UK law, even after we leave the EU.

Is the public sector exempt from the GDPR?

There have been reports that some public sector bodies believe that they are exempt from the GDPR. This assumption is based on the regulation’s special conditions and derogations, which allow member states to restrict the GDPR’s scope to safeguard the public interest (some countries, such as Denmark, already have exemptions for public sector bodies). Additionally, fining a public sector body has also been viewed as making little sense – taking from one public sector budget and placing it in another.

However, both of these assumptions are flawed. As the GDPR has been designed to enhance the rights of EU citizens, it would be against the spirit of the regulation to introduce blanket exemptions for the public sector. And it is certainly not unheard of for regulators to fine public bodies, such as the recent Norfolk County Council case, or the Hampshire County Council case in August 2016, where the council was fined £100,000 by the ICO for leaving social care case files in a disused building.

How does the GDPR differ from the Data Protection Act?

The GDPR has been described ‘as the most important change in data privacy regulation in 20 years’, providing greater rights to citizens and harmonising data privacy laws across Europe. However, to achieve this, new requirements have been placed on organisations. These include:

  • Personal dataArticle 4(1) of the GDPR includes a broader definition of ‘personal data’ than previous legislation. It states that any information relating to an individual which can be directly or indirectly used to identify them is personal data. Specifically, it refers to ‘online identifiers’, which suggests that IP addresses and cookies may be considered personal data if they can be easily linked back to the person.
  • Privacy by designThe concept of ‘privacy by design’ is not new, but Article 23 of the GDPR makes this a legal requirement. In essence, it means that public sector bodies will have to consider data protection at the initial design stage of product development. This could involve adopting technical measures such as pseudonymisation – the technique of processing personal data in such a way that it can no longer identify a particular person.
  • Data Protection Impact Assessments (DPIAs) – As the ICO’s research highlights, a third of councils do not undertake any form of privacy impact assessment. From May 2018, public sector organisations will have to carry out DPIA’s for certain activities such as introducing new technologies and when processing presents a high risk to the rights and freedoms of individuals. In the latter case, organisations will need to consult the ICO to confirm they comply with the GDPR.
  • Appointment of a Data Protection Officer (DPO)Article 35 of the GDPR states that public bodies must have a designated Data Protection Officer. This can be an existing employee, as long as there is no conflict of interest, or a single DPO can represent a group of public sector bodies. As the ICO research suggests (26% of councils do not have a DPO), this is one of the main areas where councils need to improve.
  • Data portability– Public sector organisations must ensure that personal data is stored in a ‘structured, commonly used and machine readable form’, so that individuals can transfer data easily to other organisations. For instance, suitable formats would include CSV files.
  • Strengthening subject access rights– Individuals can now request access to their data for no cost and must be responded to within 30 days (this is a change from the Data Protection Act which requires a £10 fee and there is 40 days to respond). For complex cases, this can be extended by two months. However, individuals must be notified within one month and be provided with an explanation. These requests could prove time consuming and costly for public sector bodies, and as such, supports the case for introducing digital services that allow individuals access to their data.
  • Right to be forgotten – The right to erasure (its official name) allows individuals to ask an organisation to delete all the information held on them – although this would not apply if there was a valid reason to hold that data. This principle was established in the high profile case involving technology giant Google.
  • Failing to comply and breaching the GDPR – When there is a breach, public sector bodies will have an obligation to inform their national regulator (the ICO in England) “without undue delay and, where feasible, not later than 72 hours after having become aware of it.” These requirements could present challenges for public sector bodies, who are often engaged in providing vital public services with limited resources. However, policies will have to be introduced to ensure breaches can be reported promptly, particularly as the new penalties for data breaches are significant, with public sector bodies liable for fines of up to €10,000,000. In addition, individuals also have the right of redress and may seek compensation if they feel their rights have been breached.

What should public sector bodies be focusing on?

Although May 2018 may seem a long time away, the ICO research suggests some local councils (and the wider public sector) need to make several changes to ensure compliance with the GDPR.

Most importantly, organisations need to start reviewing the new regulation and considering how it applies to them. Evidence of a clear strategy – including the appointment of a Data Protection Officer, the use of privacy impact assessments, and staff training – will go a long way towards demonstrating an organisation’s intent to comply with the GDPR.


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