Knowledge insider… a Q & A with Tim Allen

tim allenIn the latest in our series looking at evidence based practice, I spoke to Tim Allen, co-owner of two research consultancies, previously research director for the Local Government Association and a senior civil servant for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Treasury. Tim is also one of the Local Government Knowledge Navigators.

Tim, what led you to a role promoting and improving knowledge development?

My interest in the practical use of knowledge and evidence is long standing.

I started my career as a property professional and very quickly moved to the former Agriculture Development and Advisory Service, where my role was to encourage knowledge exchange and technology transfer in improving agricultural production and fostering environmentally sensitive farming.

As I moved on, I became a member of the executive board for the then Countryside Agency where I was responsible for a wide range of activities, including establishing a corporate research function to inform rural policy at a time when this was high profile, something that I subsequently followed through in roles in the Treasury and DEFRA by setting up a rural policy function in the early 2000s.

More recently, I moved to the Local Government Association as research director with a key role to support the case for local government by providing or sourcing evidence to inform policy development, on a wide range of topics from the impact on public services of migration through to climate change or encouraging supermarkets to reduce waste by reducing product packaging.

During this time, I also sponsored the LARCI Initiative, which brought together UK Research Councils, academics and local government on the basis that local government wasn’t benefitting from very substantial national investment in research and development.

A key lesson for me from that experience (which had it’s successes, but ultimately didn’t quite reach out to local government in the way that we hoped) was the importance not of the research report that may or may not sit on shelves, but of the knowledge and experience lodged in the heads of the researchers concerned – which can be a knowledge base built on years, if not decades, of working in that field.

To me, applying research to the practical problems of local public service policy and practice is about actively – and intelligently – bringing people together to collaborate, learn and exchange ideas and knowledge. Local Government has to tackle often complex and interconnected issues, such as public health and social care, supporting the most vulnerable in society, tackling waste, and planning for transport.

In our role as Local Government Knowledge Navigators, we passionately believe that as local government and local public services face eye watering cuts to funding and increased demand, we need to look for new sources of knowledge and innovation. Whilst some of this can and will come from within, when you are under pressure, you need to look more widely for wise and long term solutions, or the clues that can help you reach these such solutions.

What do you think the main benefits of developing your knowledge are?

To use an old term, Continuing Professional Development – the world does not stand still, people in policy need to keep up, to make sure we are on top of where the best knowledge is and to apply it. As resources are constrained at the moment, you really do need that knowledge even more.

What you do, why you do it and how, needs to be demonstrated and organisations need to be sure they are making good, sound decisions. If short term decisions made necessarily in haste are to be well informed and robust – and not cause regret later because they were sub-optimal – they require good quality evidence and knowledge. Otherwise they risk creating the catastrophes of tomorrow.

The benefits of knowledge based decisions include confidence in decisions – and crucially, political assurance that they are soundly based – even if this means exposing yourself to new, and potentially disruptive influences. For example, who would think that multivariate modelling that draws from the world of engineering has application in social care: well the answer is that it does, and colleagues in Southampton University are showing how this approach can inform demand management and care planning for the elderly.

However, we start from a very low base, with little systematic research and development serving local government despite the fact that the sector still spends over 20% of public expenditure. We are on a journey: Local Government doesn’t have the resources for this, yet there are beacons of exemplary good practice in applying research and research knowledge to impressive effect, but these examples are just that, episodic and without systemic adoption.

We need to connect local government to new, relevant knowledge, but not long academic tomes of research, it’s the connection between the researcher and the practitioner that is of value. One driver ought to be CPD and the need to connect with practitioners. This should be about knowledge exchange, based around people as well as the research, with approaches that foster ‘co-production’ of knowledge and the ‘co-definition’ of problems. Integrating the researcher into the system and creating a research loop, with dialogue during research.

Developments in policy around research funding are helpful in placing ever stronger emphasis on real world impact, but we need a shift in Local Government also to embrace new sources of knowledge. And this includes our local politicians who should see this as a means to have a more informed dialogue with citizens, not a threat because new knowledge may challenge pre-conceptions: austerity should leave no place for ill informed policies.

When people are talking to you about evidence, research or knowledge, what do they most frequently raise as issues?

How you respond to substantial reductions in public funding? How to know whether you are making the right decisions? Am I commissioning the right services, will it work and work for a period of years? What will local government look like in five years time? In a world where local government has shifted from an industrial scale service provider through to being a commissioner and, increasingly, a minor funder yet still accountable when things go wrong (e.g. care support for the elderly which is substantively in the private sector) – how do you deal with that? How do you deal with complexity? How do you manage within the commercial environment or commissioning framework? How do you avoid the major failures?

What are the hard to spot mistakes when it comes to developing your knowledge, which you really need to avoid?

Know where the expertise lies – to what degree can we rely on the resources we are being pointed to, and are those resources transferable? Are they robust enough to be reliable? Are we relying on unsubstantiated stories about good practice?

People often don’t know that useful evidence exists, and there is a huge disconnect between publicly funded research, which should be informing practice and local government. The drivers of success in academia are all too often publishing in academic journals that are peer reviewed and rigorous, yet ultimately often never reach practitioners.

There is also a disconnect between where research is published and where practitioners go for their information. As a result, we need structured facilitation to bring the two together (using the thrust for academic research to demonstrate real world impact) around the issues that practitioners face and help both sides come together. And before we become dispirited, there are many in the research world who want to get involved in public policy and practice, and see their research have real impact.

People often think of knowledge and research as an overhead. This is a false view and we can draw on lessons such as a recent piece by the former Swedish Prime Minister Goren Persson on the things you need to do to get yourself through severe cuts and change. He highlights how important it is to have clarity, vision and evidence, with a clear view that something at the end of the change will be better.

How do you think people will be doing evidence, research and knowledge development in five years’ time?

I would hope that we are beginning a culture shift, that will become more embedded and systemic across local government and local public services with Local Government people and researchers better connected, and with many more accessible routes and pathways to link the two.

We may not have nirvana, but we would have local dialogue with active research agendas under way which are delivering results and an equitable portion of national investment in research working for local government being steered or influenced by the sector.

The seeds are there, it just needs leadership, from those who fund research, and from local government and public services to push for this access to – and collaboration with – the research and development base, to turn what has been ad hoc and happenstance to something more systemic.

For example, in practical terms, this could include effective use of knowledge and evidence as part of peer review in local government, and professional societies and groups engaging in the agenda through CPD, but more fundamentally, fostering a thirst for knowledge rather than creating a compliance culture.

If you had a list of ‘best-kept secrets’ about research, evidence and knowledge you would recommend, what would you include and why?

  • Dialogue with your local university, find out how you can work together: there are a whole range of potential opportunities that might be a Vice Chancellor getting involved in strategy, or researchers working in partnership on a particular policy or project such as smart city development or demography.
  • Come to us as knowledge navigators to get help, make connections (which might be a about accessing national expertise.
  • Let’s exploit the recently announced ESRC ‘impact accelerator accounts’; funding is available to encourage 24 universities and research institutions to engage with external stakeholders, including local public services, to explore opportunies.

You can also read a Q&A with Clive Grace, Local Government Knowledge Navigator; a Q&A with Sarah Jennings of the Knowledge Hub; and a Q&A with Kim Ryley, recent Past President of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives.

Knowledge insider… a Q&A with Kim Ryley

Kim Ryley

Welcome to the third of our blog series in the run up to our Conference, looking at our experiences and how we invest in knowledge, I interviewed Kim Ryley, who is speaking at our London event on the 10 December. Kim Ryley has 35 years experience in local public service, with 14 of these as a Chief Executive in several large City and Unitary Councils. He is a recent Past President of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (Solace, UK), is a Solace Board Director, and is currently Chair of the Society’s business arm, Solace in Business, as well as the Society’s Lead on International Relations.

Kim, what led you to a role promoting and improving knowledge development?  

I think it started early in my career, many years ago, long before the quality management of information became the norm in local government. Originally, I worked in the local education service, in the days before performance league tables for schools. One thing that struck me forcibly then was that there was little attempt to judge how successful the money invested in local schools was in raising the levels of educational attainment. Continue reading

Knowledge insider… a Q&A with Sarah Jennings

sarah jenningsWelcome to the second of our blog series in the run up to our Conference, looking at how we invest in knowledge, this time with Sarah Jennings, Director of Digital and Community Engagement at CapacityGrid. She’s responsible for the Knowledge Hub, an online space for cross-sector collaboration focused on sharing good practice, ideas generation and supporting public sector transformation.

Sarah, what led you to a role promoting and improving knowledge development?  

I started my working career as a specialist librarian. Whilst working at the Royal Society an internal opportunity came up to manage the websites. This was digital in its infancy before the term existed, first generation activity in digital! However it seemed obvious that knowledge and information sharing would be key components.

After that I moved into the education sector, managing the online work at the previous incarnation of SSAT (The Schools Network) when it had responsibility for delivery of the specialist schools and academies remits for government. We specialised in providing support and training in teaching and learning; curriculum; networking and leadership development. This is where I first started to see the real benefits of technology as an enabler for peer-to-peer sharing of knowledge, case studies and best practice across networks of teachers.

Following a spell in regional government, I moved to the Local Government Association. Here I was responsible for the digital estate, including developing our communities of practice. However, people and sectors were still siloed and not sharing to best effect. So the launch of its successor, the Knowledge Hub, was an attempt to tackle this through building networks of people that weren’t necessarily around a theme and made use of emerging social media tools and techniques. I didn’t set off to do this and don’t really see myself as a knowledge manager. I’m more a convener of people. I enjoy connecting people up, facilitating conversations and getting people working together to improve things. I like herding cats; and seem to be quite good at it!

What do you think the main benefits of developing your knowledge are?

Keeping up to date with what is going on, the areas I work in, the sector I work in – I’m the sort of person who likes to devour knowledge.

I enjoy building my own network. I’m always surprised how often I look up someone I met or worked with a while ago and we do something amazing. In most areas I see myself as having a broad-based knowledge, rather than depth, however I do consider I have a reasonable knowledge where digital is concerned, having lived and breathed it for nearly 15 years in one form or another.

I think being multi-disciplinary in today’s world is a useful thing. Jobs are very different now. It’s incredible to think that developments in the last 100 years mean that some process driven professional roles have and will continue to disappear and be replaced by machines. Being multi-disciplinary is the key; a broad knowledge and skill-set means you can work across different roles within the workforce and provide more flexibility to organisational structures.

When people are talking to you about evidence, research or knowledge, what do they most frequently raise as issues?

Often, it’s “there is so much”: how do they navigate it? How do they find it? How do they know whether it’s any good? Even in Knowledge Hub, people need support and help finding what they need and this is the role of our community managers

I take advantage of my information management background, to help them to move through it, navigate. To do this well I have to recognise that everyone’s different – human nature, learning styles and decision making processes. I have to ensure Knowledge Hub caters for this diversity, whether people want formal learning with docs or forums for collaboration.

Big Data is often raised as an issue, knowledge about it, what to do with it and how to use it. Again, there’s too much and how do we know what’s worth using either for evidence or to predict future services?

But the biggest issue people face is “who are the experts?” How do you know who they are and who do you trust? The benefit of collaboration is it’s good for getting a range of information, opinions and expertise and experts, emerge from this process.

What are the hard to spot mistakes when it comes to developing your knowledge, which you really need to avoid?

Social media: your view of the world can be limited by the people you are following. Try not to (always) follow like-minded people because you get a narrow vision and view of the world. It’s important to step out of your area, look at the way people are doing things elsewhere.

Decision making: if I’m making a decision around digital, for example, I tend to talk to other digital people. Again, this can reinforce a stereotype and provide a narrow view.  It’s important to go beyond that, step outside your comfort zone, seek alternative views and break out of the silo. More often than not, we think about how we do something and not always the impact. With Knowledge Hub we are trying to introduce serendipity, introducing people to new groups and opportunities they may not have thought of, or come across, to enable this broadening to happen.

You need to be open minded, like a 360 review; get feedback, challenge your own assumptions. Everyone needs to take a break from the norm and look around them, see if what you are doing has already been tried and tested elsewhere, and you learn from.

This reflective approach is growing and it’s partly because the gender balance is improving, especially in digital, which is challenging the status quo and needs different (perhaps more?) skills. There are different ways of doing things, the best ‘managers’ out there are employing a whole range of different techniques. It’s no longer seen to be passive to have a mentoring approach, admit you don’t have all the answers and seeking help from others – even at the top!

Cass Business School, carried out research with retiring leaders from the baby boom era, asking them what they thought the next generation of leadership would need to look like. The majority said an emotional intelligence approach would be key.

Knowledge is fine but as a concept is no use unless you do something with it. We need to recognise talent and early on. Ideas and innovation can come from anywhere within an organisation. We simply need to know how to unlock it.

How do you think people will be doing evidence, research and knowledge development in 5 years’ time?

Data – It’s at the centre of everything; we are struggling with so much data, is it relevant, how do we use it?

There seems to be a couple of schools of thought on this, do we use it to learn lessons from the past or to predict what the needs are, more demand management? I think it’s a mix of both.  In terms of politics, services and understanding the world around us, this will become easier, the more data and information becomes available and we learn how to interpret it. Things like the “Internet of Things” are both exciting and daunting. To properly take advantage of these opportunities, we will need to get better at how we use data.

Skills – we will need to be cross disciplinary; able to pick up things; be collaborative; have people skills; ask the right questions; do creative analysis; then to question and assimilate what we learn. It’s not one person it’s a team, as it needs more than one person to innovate and take ideas to delivery.

As an individual you can be both specialist and cross disciplinary. It makes you valuable as a resource asset. People with specialist knowledge and the ability to look across multiple areas, will be the ones who succeed going forward, together with sufficient emotional intelligence to exhibit different decision making and leadership styles suited to the circumstance.

If you had a list of ‘best-kept secrets’ about research, evidence and knowledge you would recommend, what would you include and why?

Collaboration – understanding where the places are to go to, the experts and knowledge – people who don’t share will be left behind.

  • Remember to ask the awkward questions
  • Don’t confine where you go for answers

Looking at those people who are getting at the forefront of research, they are doing this now.

For my own expert knowledge:

The GDS especially for implementing good standards and principles, because they’ve invested time, money and effort and there’s no point in reinventing the wheel. For example design principles; website usability; transactions; or user journeys. Their development code is all shared on GitHub, and it’s now being taken up by other countries. Mike Bracken spoke at Innovate2014 about reusing services on a global level, the whole market out there gathering info and feedback on code and improving it. We are at a crossroads, for example the public sector is starting to dictate how a service works, changing the relationship and dynamics between suppliers and buyers to one based on demand, flexibility and co-creation.

Knowledge should be about improvement, where producers respond to demand and how a service needs to be delivered to most effect. The Social Value Act has had an effect on this. The opening up of public assets means IPR is being challenged and how people get recompensed for supplying a service. At the centre of supply and demand there is still knowledge.  We just need to think differently about the wrapper and commercial model.

If you would like to hear Sarah speak about her work and how social approaches can help in knowledge sharing, sign up to our free conference in December here.

You can also read a Q&A with Clive Grace, Local Government Knowledge Navigator.

Knowledge insider … a Q&A with Clive Grace

Clive Grace

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. Continue reading

Big challenges – and rewards – for Big Data in the third sector

Image from Flickr user JustGrimes, licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons License

Image from Flickr user JustGrimes, licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons License

By Stephen Lochore

‘Big data’ is big news! Along with its close relative ‘open data’, it’s part of the latest thinking about how managing information can help bring about better services. The rough idea is to use new technology and approaches to understand, analyse, link and where possible share large complex datasets to generate new insights and improve decisions.

In 2012, the UK government identified big data as one of eight ‘great technologies’ that support science and business, and since then has invested in a range of big data initiatives through the UK Research Councils. This includes the ESRC’s Big Data Network, whose current phase involves establishing four academic research centres to make data from local government and business more accessible.

In Scotland, an industry-led data lab, backed by public funding, is due to open late in 2014 to develop new data science capabilities.

Most of the focus has been on private sector innovation, higher education research capabilities and public sector datasets. Little has been said about the third or voluntary sector, which is surprising:

  • Third sector organisations provide a wide range of services – policymakers need to understand the sector’s structure and capabilities;
  • Many third sector organisations gather information that could help improve the design and delivery of services – they work directly with local communities including vulnerable groups who can be reluctant to engage in formal consultations.

Fortunately, there are a few initiatives which are looking at these issues.

On Monday 13 October I went to the first of a series of workshops organised by Scottish Universities Insight Institute into the opportunities and challenges of using data for Scotland’s third sector organisations.

Continue reading