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Professor Amelia Hadfield and Dr Tamsin Woodward-Smith, University of Surrey

28 October 2020, 7:53 UTC Share

Covid-19 recovery: collaborative civic engagement in Surrey

The University of Surrey discuss how they’ve collaborated with Surrey County Council and other regional Higher Education Institutions to develop a Covid recovery plan for the region.

November 2020 will see the launch of a University of Surrey report entitled “Charting Surrey’s Post-Covid Rescue, Recovery and Growth.” The work was co-funded by Surrey County Council and the University of Surrey’s ESRC Impact Acceleration Account (IAA), and the launch event is being held on 12th November as part of the University’s programme of events for the ESRC’s Festival of Social Science 2020.

Commissioned by the Future Economy Surrey Commission and produced with the support of Surrey County Council, this comprehensive report incorporates detailed analysis and strategic recommendations gathered from key business, healthcare, aviation and knowledge economy stakeholders from across Surrey between June-October 2020. Professor Amelia Hadfield led a multi-disciplinary team of researchers (including graduate students) from Surrey and Royal Holloway University to analyse the impact that Covid-19 has had on the county and to produce a range of strategic recommendations necessary to enable Surrey’s recovery, and subsequent growth and prosperity.

On the eve of the University of Surrey’s formal membership of UPEN and the up-coming launch of the report, Professor Hadfield reflects on the particular nature and opportunities around this type of policy engagement, and the takeaways and lessons learned from such a high-profile and potentially impactful project.

Bridges not ladders. Professor Hadfield reflects: “Beyond the design and recommendations in the report itself, the research team were being asked by the Surrey Future Economy Commission to construct an architecture of engagement, with local authorities relying on us to identify key challenges and make trusted contacts, sometimes on really difficult issues – including furlough and the shutting down of businesses. I think this implied a very real degree of trust in our team, and in the university more broadly, to get that engagement right to begin with, and then to get the subsequent analysis right. What helped was the overwhelmingly receptive attitude of stakeholders, who understood not just the pertinence of the report, but its potential impact. Building these relationships as sustainable, two-way ‘bridges’ rather than a one-way ‘ladder’, was integral to the success of the report.”

Trust is important. An important foundation in projects such as this is the willingness of both partners to see each other as a reliable, high quality collaborator, and to regard the product itself as a worthy co-production. “Academics – and universities more broadly – have a genuine duty of care to bring the critical mass of research which they represent to bear upon the needs of the community. Surrey’s immediate need at this point is for a detailed appraisal of the impact of Covid (and to a lesser extent, Brexit) on the county – what else should we be doing?” Professor Hadfield argues. “There can be a tendency for universities to underestimate themselves, but we have a lot to offer. As a hub of objective analysis, universities have an important role to play within our local communities. When this works well, it allows HEIs to be regarded as an ‘honest broker’ in providing local and regional insights, as well as providing genuine support. Of course, universities have their own interests and agendas, but in terms of local expertise, universities can and should work harder at ‘positive positioning’ within their local communities, providing interdisciplinary rather than ideological insights, as well as solid relationships with the local community – the latter area being a particular strength for UniSurrey.”

Building sustainable, trusted relationships for long-lasting impact. “The funding from the ESRC IAA really helped us think about and develop the impact potential of this work. The whole point of ESRC IAA funding is to identify, develop and sustain impactful work. This goal arguably shifted our initial way of thinking about the stakeholders we were contacting, and helped us to recognise the value of building these initial contacts into trusted long-term relationships, as well as ensuring that our initial findings about post-Covid recovery translated into workable policy recommendations. I now see the project overall as much more of a generational body of work, with connections across both public and private sectors that we would love to see return to the University as future impact projects. Another real highlight from this project was the chance to build further collaborative bridges with Royal Holloway University and the University for the Creative Arts (UCA). This brought genuine rewards in terms of our final analysis: both were hugely collegial and supportive, and it was a real delight to see more links being built between us. Indeed, the fact that these links were made so easily really demonstrates the importance of such relationships to all three institutions.”

Window into your local community. “As a relatively new-to-Surrey academic, the research project has been a great way to learn about the institution’s links to the local community, and at pace! I’ve been particularly struck by the desire of local residents to feel included in the University’s activities. We need to remember that a university is a genuine magnet for its local community, and that it can act as a social and intellectual anchor, as well as being a nexus of research. I also was delighted to discover more about regional research networks in Surrey and the Southeast, including SEPnet and SETsquared: these are a real source of pride in the eyes of those who developed them, as well as the many students who’ve benefited from them. Our report indicates clearly their very real potential to generate a catalytic effect in terms of the economic recovery of the county.”

Have the courage to say the hard truths. It’s important to be courageous, to speak the truth in a measured way and as dispassionately as possible, whether those facts indicate positive or negative outcomes. “The research was especially challenging in this respect. It meant on the one side not being afraid to talk about the hugely damaging impacts of Covid – there are areas in the county where there is genuine hardship, where Covid isn’t simply an ‘impact’, it’s a blight, it’s not just ‘an economic downturn’, it’s a cliff-edge for families, businesses and communities. And on the other side, the analysis required us to identify the positive – sometimes surprising – ways in which innovation, change, resilience arose from across the county, in ways we weren’t previously aware of. Getting that balance right – in terms of engaging openly with stakeholders, then writing honestly regarding the results, and objectively about the required steps forward – was a challenge throughout.”

Be conscious of political agendas, and be prepared to be agile. When working with any local authorities, from county councils to districts and boroughs, it’s important to be aware that such partners generally have a specific mandate on which they were elected, and this comes in the form of their own interests, agenda and resources. “It’s important to keep yourself up to date with the political terrain in a given area, including local-national dynamics, and to be aware that these agendas can shift quickly, particularly at a time of high crisis, as in the case of this project. In order to ensure that the finished outputs are both reflective and relevant for the community in question, researchers need to always to remember the ‘lay of the land’ in terms of prevailing political interests, and be prepared to be agile in thinking through how immediate or unpredictable changes play out on the current analysis and indeed subsequent policy recommendations.”

Be entrepreneurial – don’t sit back and wait to be asked. Professor Hadfield recommends: “Don’t be afraid to make the first contact. Our initial attempts at reaching out were based on the high-quality, established expertise within the Department of Politics on issues of UK, Europe and Brexit. My sense was that the department, faculty, and indeed university could go further as a possible research partner. So on that basis, I simply started asking ‘why aren’t you consulting with the University in terms of political analysis?’ Those initial conversations formed a foundation that I think got us known, and put us in the right place at the right time, allowing us to be ready to respond to the request from the Future Economy Surrey Commission. So, don’t be shy! I definitely believe there’s value in knocking on the door and asking the question: ‘can we help you with something?’ The answer will rarely be no. And even if it is, the next time it might be yes! I should also say that like any good team, you need backup from HQ. I was only able to establish the team and undertake the research, based on the university’s already-established reputation as a strong community player, as well as key senior colleagues at University of Surrey who were positive, and responsive in supporting the project from the outset.”

Good communication is key. There is sometimes a perception that local authorities can be challenging to work with, because of the difficulties in gaining clarity around what they want in policy terms, and also about what we as researchers can genuinely deliver. Professor Hadfield agrees: “A good way to deal with this challenge is to ensure a really clear brief, on the basis of an established timeline and manageable goals. For this project, we started with a really clear set of research questions, which made up the overall brief, and made it clear that any changes would need to be negotiated. Similarly, it is important to build in regular updates with your partners, and be prepared to produce early and mid-range analysis, so that there are no unpleasant surprises on either side. We provided fortnightly updates, even if it was just the minutes of our meetings or that week’s economic data, so our partners could see who we’d been talking to and the decisions we’d been making. Clear communication reduces the chances of misperceptions regarding the project and its overall outcome. I think of this report as a ‘living document’, based on the open communication between everyone involved, and I very much hope it will be drawn upon in the equally ‘live’ spectrum of policy-making in terms of tackling Covid’s impact on the county.”

Professor Amelia Hadfield is the Head of the Department of Politics at the University of Surrey and Co-Director of the Centre for Britain and Europe. Dr Tamsin Woodward-Smith is the ESRC Impact Acceleration Account Manager at the University of Surrey.

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