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Gigi Tennant & Kuranda Morgan

14 June 2022, 1:16 UTC Share

Improving learning opportunities for policy engagement: lessons from the CAPE consortium

Gigi Tennant and Kuranda Morgan from CAPE partner Nesta, who lead our training workstream, share their reflections on what they’ve learnt about how to improve training and learning provision for academics who are engaging with policy.

Why are we doing this?

We want to understand the enablers and barriers to delivering effective policy engagement training and professional development offers at CAPE partner universities. Through a series of interviews and focus groups, we sought to learn how training and other professional development activities dedicated to policy engagement are currently being designed, commissioned and administered – and identified areas for further collaboration and development. We outline our findings below.

Across universities within the UK, there has been a lot of investment into activities that support learning on how to engage with policy. From training to mentoring schemes, formal professional development courses to informal peer learning approaches, there is an increased push for researchers and professional services staff to demonstrate that they have the knowledge, skills and attitudes needed to engage with a range of policy environments and audiences. For example, the  Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) has published open access resources on engaging with Parliament as a researcher, the Institute for Government (IFG) delivers seminars, workshops and bespoke programmes for engaging with policy, and universities have designed and delivered their own in-house provision to meet this demand.

Yet there remains limited evidence of what actually works when it comes to policy engagement activities, nor how training and other professional development opportunities might intersect with the unique geographic and political contexts across different institutions. What can universities learn from each other about how policy engagement training and professional development opportunities are designed, delivered and incentivised? And how might these offers be developed or adapted to reflect the unique needs of university personnel? According to University College London “investing in the people who “support connectivity” is vital if the UK is to maximise the social return on its investment in research”.

What have we found so far?

At the individual and team level

  • Academics and researchers benefit from peer learning and group networking and sharing experiences between peers is valuable.
  • University staff often aren’t aware of the policy engagement training materials available to them.
  • Policy engagement support is often responsive to the demand of people who are already interested, rather than focussed on outreach to those not yet engaged.
  • Self-guided online modules allow time-constrained researchers and professional services staff alike to learn when it suits them best. However, staff find value not only in signposting to resources, but also bespoke policy engagement advice or support, and external facilitation.
  • There is a need for reflection on the role of the researcher within the policy engagement process and consideration of how different individuals can be supported throughout the process.

At the institution level

  • Designing, developing and delivering learning activities is time and resource intensive. Capacity for doing this is limited and there is a desire to improve efficiency and effectiveness in training delivery. Current training provision is exceeded by demand – which is often accompanied by a desire for bespoke, one-to-one policy engagement support/signposting of resources.
  • There are significant maturity and capacity differences in institutional ability to deliver opportunities. Support staff play a large role in signposting and organising training resources and linking to broader opportunities for engagement.
  • It’s important to situate training within existing incentive structures within a university where possible. Too often it’s seen as an add-on to existing time pressures and responsibilities.
  • There is a desire to better understand how to connect policy engagement training to other activities for policy engagement (eg, fellowships, mentorship schemes).
  • It can be difficult to understand how to balance core training content and the needs of different faculties and disciplines to ensure policy engagement learning offers reflect broader policy engagement trends of the university.

At the ecosystem level

  • There is a desire to learn about how universities are delivering policy engagement training and professional development opportunities.
  • There are different learning needs depending on the career stages and sectors of those participating and a desire to better understand what training and professional development opportunities are fit-for-purpose.
  • Training is one element of a broader learning/capacity journey for policy engagement.
  • There is currently a lack of quality assurance for policy engagement learning materials. Providing quality assurance – including monitoring and evaluation frameworks for learning – would help build the trustworthiness of current provision, and allow for confidence in signposting of resources.

Cultivating inclusive and accessible learning opportunities

Through our interviews, we found that participation in policy engagement training and professional development activities can often be seen as a form of volunteerism, in that the lack of formal incentives to participate means that it adds to existing time pressures and workloads. Furthermore, whilst digital content offers some flexibility, there was a perceived need to balance the accessibility of content with the benefits that comes from individualised or facilitated support.

Within training more specifically, interviewees highlighted the importance of integrating the lived experience of how policy engagement is experienced by those with protected characteristics. As also highlighted in UPEN’s Surfacing Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) within Academic-Policy Engagement report, there was also a perceived need to both systematically capture EDI data in learning activities and to ensure that case studies and learning content is representative of a wide range of experiences.

What’s next?

In response to the needs highlighted within this work, Nesta is hosting a new community of practice (CoP) dedicated to facilitating learning, collaboration, and innovation within policy engagement training and professional development opportunities over 2022-2023. If you are interested in the community of practice, get in touch.

About CAPE

Capabilities in Academic Policy Engagement (CAPE) is a knowledge exchange and research project funded by Research England from 2020-2024, which has been exploring how to support effective and sustained engagement between academics and policy professionals. The project is a partnership between UCL and the Universities of Cambridge, Manchester, Northumbria and Nottingham in collaboration with the Government Office for Science, the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology, Nesta and the Transforming Evidence Hub.

About CAPE blogs

CAPE blogs have been written by members of the CAPE team and policy partners reflecting on their learning and experience of academic policy engagement using practice-based evidence from the project.

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