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.