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Dr Nicola Caroll and Camilla McCartney, University of Leeds

09 February 2021, 4:34 UTC Share

Optimising civic collaboration in Leeds

Nicola Carroll and Camilla McCartney of Leeds Social Sciences Institute discuss how a review of collaboration between academics at the University of Leeds and officers at Leeds City Council is informing an action plan for enhancing research-policy engagement.

“We’ve got no choice but to collaborate… whether it’s climate, economy, citizenship, it’s really important to get collaboration deeply embedded”. This was the view of one senior manager from Leeds City Council who took part in a review of collaboration between officers at the authority and academics across the University of Leeds. The review, which was carried out by Leeds Social Sciences Institute (LSSI), sought to map existing activity and identify factors that enable and inhibit collaborative research. Fieldwork for the review began prior to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, but the need for effective research-policy partnerships has become more urgent in light of the crisis as well as pending devolution across West Yorkshire.

Staff at the two organisations have been working together productively for decades and mapping collaborative research activities for the first time revealed 118 projects since January 2015 alone, with 45 projects currently in progress. These projects vary in scale and type, span all University Faculties and Council Directorates and deliver wide-ranging environmental, economic and social benefits for the city. The importance of trust, goodwill and closely aligned objectives in underpinning this impressive record was apparent during an on-line survey involving 147 respondents from both organisations and interviews with 33 researchers and local government officers. As was their enthusiasm for further partnership working.

Barriers to collaboration were also evident, however. Research collaboration in the city has grown largely organically and professionals believe a more strategic interorganisational approach is required to help address commonly encountered obstacles and introduce mechanisms that support successful future engagement. LSSI’s report, Unlocking civic engagement: A review of research-policy engagement between the University of Leeds and Leeds City Council, proposed a series of recommendations for enhancing research-policy collaboration based on findings from the review.

A Reference Group incorporating senior representatives from the University and the Council has been established and is now overseeing the phased implementation of an agreed Action Plan arising from the review. Leaders from both organisations are committed to a strategic approach to optimising research-policy engagement and embedding collaborative working in their respective institutional frameworks. Actions that are currently under way include a specialist working party focused on improving data-sharing, which was identified as a significant obstacle during the review, and appointment of ‘champions’ to aid cross-institutional navigation and brokerage. Resources are being developed which aim to increase mutual understanding of academic and policy contexts. A series of joint events and workshops are being hosted to facilitate detailed conversations around themes for co-produced research. Other plans that are being mobilised include expansion of ‘living lab’ opportunities across the city and campus and inclusion of research clauses in the Council’s procurement process.

The Reference Group sees determining shared priorities for co-produced research as a crucial initial step in building on existing strengths and accelerating future collaborations. Two workshops were organised which brought researchers from the University and policy professionals from the Council together in late December to help formulate those interorganisational priorities. There was a striking degree of consensus in their perspectives on issues facing the city, aspirations for the future and over-arching themes for collaborative endeavours. Importantly, academics and council officers were united in views on principles that should underpin co-produced projects. They commonly proposed that inclusivity and co-design to create citizen ownership and empowerment should be principal attributes of all joint research. They also agreed that fostering interdisciplinary engagement is an essential basis from which to address complex challenges facing the city-region and that insights from qualitative research, as well as evidence from ‘big data’, should be harnessed to contribute to the knowledge base that informs policies and practices.

During the review, researchers and officers alike were eager to point out that while strategic direction and shared infrastructure are necessary, this should build upon the innovations, relationships and spirit of partnership that already exist, rather than adding layers of bureaucracy. Achieving this balance will be vital in maintaining momentum and unlocking potential for further collaboration that undoubtedly exists.

Dr Nicola Carroll is the Postdoctoral Researcher working on the Collaboration Review for Leeds Social Sciences Institute (LSSI) and Camilla McCartney is Engagement Officer at LSSI.

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