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Dave Blackbell

06 September 2023, 8:07 UTC Share

Recruiting for relational leadership – SPRE’s search for a Co-Director

The Scottish Policy & Research Exchange works with research, knowledge mobilisation and policy communities in Scotland, as well as across the UK, to improve how evidence and expertise shapes public policy. 

In this blog, Dave Blackbell, SPRE’s new Co-Director, shares some of the insights underpinning SPRE’s new direction of travel – a values-led intersectional praxis – and how it is shaping current efforts to recruit a second Co-Director (applications remain open until 4pm Thursday 14th September).

Launched in 2019 by Founding Director, Nick Bibby, SPRE was initially set-up as a project within the Academy of Social Sciences. As with the many recent research-policy initiatives – including UPEN – this was a response to the growing recognition of the importance of increasing capacities to support and facilitate the use of evidence and expertise in public policy.

Last year, SPRE became an independent charity (a SCIO, to be exact). While this was a relatively straightforward process technically speaking, it opened up a rare window of opportunity to reshape SPRE’s foundations, which surfaced some challenging questions… Questions such as: what does it mean to improve research-policy relationshipsWhat capacities are needed to support and facilitate that improvement? And, most tangibly: what orientation and shape should SPRE take to contribute to this effectively?

Some insights underpinning SPRE’s new direction of travel

Luckily, there is a wealth of evidence and expertise on research-policy relationships, knowledge mobilisation, and more broadly on the relationship between science and society, that can help us make sense of and navigate through these questions. 

Here are three insights that I feel are particularly pertinent to an organisation like SPRE:

  1. Research-policy engagement is never neutral. Without wanting to wade past my depth into philosophical debates on the nature of ‘truth’ and ‘objectivity’, I find the argument – some might even say observation – rather compelling that facts and values are always entwined through how research questions, policy problems and ‘good’ evidence use are framed (e.g. Bacchi 2009Doucet 2019Turnout 2018). Of course, there are numerous other ways in which the practice of research-policy engagement is inextricably implicated in creating, reinforcing, mitigating and/or transforming societal inequities (UPEN 2021) – not least by contributing to the “busy mass of rudderless activity” that characterises the landscape, as Oliver et al., 2022 point out.
  2. We need participatory processes and diverse forms of knowledge to come together to address complex policy challenges. Seeing the ‘whole’ picture is not attainable when situations are complex, but we can see more of it when we draw on different perspectives and explore different framings, and make better sense of what the relevant evidence means when we include people impacted by problems and implicated in their solutions (e.g. Jagannathan et al., 2023Maas et al., 2022). A move in this direction is well captured in widespread ambitions to co-produce research for policy impact, and in efforts to integrate public engagement with evidence use (e.g. Hill O’Connor et al., 2023).
  3. Learning must be our strategy. The answer to the perennial question, “what works?”, is surely always: “it depends!”. It depends not only on all the important nuances of “what works hereto change what, for whom, says who, how and why?” but also on the messiness, ambiguities and total surprises of how things unfold whenever you try to implement change in practice. Impact is always emergent – it is patterned but not predictable. So there are compelling reasons to value, resource and embed evidence-informed learning-by-doing approaches, such as through contribution analysis for adaptive management (Apgar et al., 2020) or the Human Learning Systems approach.

Collectively, I see these insights as making the case that research-policy engagement isn’t a technical problem, it’s a relational one. So we need to apply a relational lens to our work.

Attending to the qualities of relationships implicated in our work is of course fundamental here, especially in terms of qualities such as equity, diversity and inclusion, and shared trust, respect, solidarity and ownership. But a relational lens goes beyond this. I’m particularly drawn to an understanding of relationality as articulated by Walsh et al (2021) and West et al (2020), and have summarised some of these implications here, in contrast with a ‘technical’ lens:

 Technical lens Relational lens
World view (ontology)‘Either or’: An independent, rational mindset  Facts can be separated from values – science can be separated from society.‘Both and’: An interdependent, rational, emotional and embodied mindset Facts and values are always entwined in problem framings – science is always co-produced with society.
Ways of knowing(epistemology)Positivist: objective, scientific rationality is the only credible and legitimate way of establishing facts about the world.  Knowledge production should aim towards single, definitive truths.   Pluralist: there are many different credible and legitimate ways of knowing the world. Knowledge production should aim towards plural, conditional truths.  
Principles for action (ethics)Control: universal principles should be applied to an account of relevant facts in order to achieve predetermined and quantifiable results. Care: action should be guided – through dialogue, practice and learning – by the needs of the relationships you are implicated in. (see here for more details)

How might all of this translate into a new orientation and shape for SPRE? Part of the answer must be that this will emerge over time and be constantly evolving. But a more concrete proposition is captured by our new direction of travel: a values-led intersectional praxis – which maps onto my three points above:

  • Values-led – to be explicit about and accountable for the values that shape our work and engagement with evidence, expertise and their use.
  • Intersectional – as a way of understanding and explaining the complexity of ideas, systems, practices and power relations that shape the relationship between different knowledges, with a commitment to advancing equity at its core.
  • Praxis – to guide how we strategically integrate, flow between, and hold in tension, theory, practice, learning and adaptation in our work.

Some major implications of this new direction of travel are that SPRE needs enhanced capacities to design and facilitate participatory learning processes, to establish and maintain complexity-aware monitoring, evaluation and learning systems, and to develop and embed adaptive governance and management practice. We expect that the recruitment of a second Co-Director will go a long way to enhancing these internal capacities – and we’ve reflected this in the job description.

How has our new approach influenced our Co-Director recruitment process?

There are many ways, big and small, in which we’ve been working to weave our new approach into this recruitment – too many to share here, and more that will require dedicated learning to unpack. But there are three key features that I feel have been particularly important: transparency, accountability and accessibility. Hopefully these stand out when you look at our approach

It began with launching recruitment as a consultative exercise, to raise awareness and allow those interested to help shape and improve the job description and recruitment process. Now, in the midst of the application phase, we have put in place a range of measures for:

All of this has taken significant work from much of our Board, our consultant and facilitator (Briana Pegado), and myself – and was built off of learning from our approach to Board recruitment. But it has been entirely worth it. Not only because the effort is commensurate with the importance of the role we’re recruiting for, but also because it has enabled so many new relationships to form and so much learning for us about what our new approach feels like in practice.

A big lesson for me is that our approach to recruitment has felt both exciting and vulnerable… Exciting because we have had the freedom to innovate in line with our values – and this feels great! Vulnerable because we are explicitly exposing what we value and inviting feedback on it. 

In fact, one important marker of success would be that people feel welcome and able to give us uncomfortable feedback, and trust that we will listen, seek to understand, and respond appropriately. And we need to be comfortable with that.

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