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Stephen Aldridge, Director for Analysis and Data, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government

21 January 2020, 9:02 UTC Share

Building links between academia and policymakers – A MHCLG Perspective

There is a tremendous thirst amongst policymakers to make better use of academic research says Stephen Aldridge, Director for Analysis and Data at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government

Why do links between academia and policymakers matter?

Strong, active and effective links between academia and policymakers are vital to both.

To academia, because such links are a crucial means by which their work can have impact for public good. Academia can provide invaluable research and evidence; challenge; and fresh perspectives and innovative thinking, for policymakers and those engaged in delivering public services at all levels of government.

To policymakers, because – no matter how well resourced their own research and analytical functions – there’ll always be scope to learn from academia. Academic research can help policymakers better understand economic, social and other problems, what drives them and what works in tackling them.

On the supply side, there are around 200,000 academics working in UK universities – a truly incredible resource. On the demand side, there is a real thirst amongst policymakers and those delivering public services for research and evidence that can help them in their work.

How do I and my team go about building links and making use of them?

I am the Director of a multi-disciplinary team of analysts at MHCLG. I have a superb team of economists, social researchers, statisticians, operational researchers and data specialists of various kinds. Their work is in huge demand and greatly respected. But we also need strong relationships with academia to make sure our work – and associated policy – is underpinned by the very latest and most broadly-based thinking, research and evidence.

How do we go about building and using such links? Activities include:

• Economics and social research seminars: these are held roughly monthly mainly with speakers from academia and address issues right across MHCLG’s areas of policy responsibility.

• Workshops and roundtables: we’ve held some excellent in-depth roundtables on issues such as local government finance and homelessness & rough sleeping.

• Engaging academic experts in major research projects: for example we established advisory groups to support our work on the evaluation of the Troubled Families Programme, details of which are given in the foreword to the report published in March 2019. See here.

• What Works Centres: MHCLG has funded a number of what works centres, including centres for local growth, ageing better, wellbeing and early intervention. This has given us access to academic and other expertise.

• Building networks: as MHCLG’s Director for Analysis and Data, I’ve sought to build networks of academic and other contacts and use these to support the work of my analysts and the Department more generally. I’m a Continuing Fellow at the Centre for Science and Policy, Cambridge; a board member of the Centre for Homelessness Impact; a member of the International Advisory Board of the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence; and various other advisory groups. Whether it’s econometric modelling of the housing market; evaluating interventions such as Help to Buy equity loans; understanding what makes for strong communities; drawing lessons from the history of local government and local government finance, and much else besides, academic input continues greatly to assist our work.

How can academia tap into the thirst for research and evidence?

Most departments have Directors of Analysis or equivalent senior analysts. Academics shouldn’t hesitate to reach out to them – my contact details are given below. Academia has a superb track record in policy relevant work, and academic engagement will be hugely welcomed at all levels of government.

Most departments have published documents that give a good indication of each their interests. My department’s areas of research interest document can be found here (though inevitably our interests are constantly evolving):

An increasing number of universities are offering Policy Fellowships and similar initiatives to bring academics and policymakers together. The Cambridge Centre for Science and Policy was the first to do this but others are now doing so too e.g. the Institute for Policy Research, Bath and the Institute for Policy and Engagement, Nottingham. I have found such initiatives invaluable and strongly support the work of the Universities Policy Engagement Network.

One final point: whatever the research or evidence, if it is to have impact, it needs to be relevant, robust, timely, and easy to understand. This is central above all to policy impact.

Twitter: @saldridg

Stephen is Director for Analysis and Data at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. A government economist by background, he was previously Chief Economist and then Director of the Strategy Unit in the Cabinet Office. He has also worked in the Department of Trade and Industry; the Department of the Environment, Transport & the Regions; the Cabinet Secretariats; and Her Majesty’s Treasury. He is a Continuing Policy Fellow at the Centre for Science and Policy at Cambridge and a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences.

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