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Dr Eleanor MacPherson

21 June 2024, 9:52 UTC Share

Reflections on the UPEN Conference

In this blog, Dr Eleanor MacPherson, Knowledge Exchange Lead, College of Social Sciences, University of Glasgow reflects on attending the 2024 UPEN conference.

“Don’t treat politics as an inconvenience, to be side-stepped.”

Kersten England, 2024 Keynote, Universities Policy Engagement Network Annual Conference

As I returned to Glasgow after the UPEN conference, Kersten England’s keynote address continued to resonate with me. It is the mark of a truly inspirational speaker when their words and ideas stay with you for days after. In 2023, I made significant life changes, relocating with my family from Malawi to Glasgow and transitioning from an academic position to Knowledge Exchange Lead in the College of Social Sciences at the University of Glasgow. One of the key motivations for my career change was to take a step back and consider ways I could effect change within the broader research eco-system. Attending my first UPEN conference, I had a great day surrounded by truly inspiring people dedicated to making academic engagement in policy as positive as possible.

I’ve never believed we can sidestep politics, and coming from a career in Global Health, I have always been acutely aware of the way power and politics can shape so many aspects of people’s lives. Political decisions, often made far from local areas, can have devastating impacts, and local governments and communities are often left to pick up the pieces.

Dr England’s talk set the tone for the rest of the conference. Drawing on her experiences as Bradford Council’s Chief Executive, she did not shy away from the complex realities we are all facing. She clearly laid out the precariousness and enormity of the polycrisis we face today: the decimation of local government funding due to austerity at a time when local governments are asked to address increasingly complex issues. Her emphasis on the importance of local government and their connection to communities reflected my experiences of working with dedicated local stakeholders in Malawi, who were on the frontlines supporting people during some of the most challenging moments, such as deadly cyclones that displaced 100,000 people. Once considered a “once-in-a-lifetime event,” these cyclones are now happening yearly.

Yet, her words left room for hope. “Local government should be the convenor of place, putting people and agency at the heart of what you do.” She emphasised that local government can achieve much through deeply embedded partnerships, including those with universities. She was direct in her advice on how academics should engage: avoid knowledge transfer and instead build collaborations focusing on knowledge integration and exchange. We must move beyond providing obvious insights and avoid acting as detached experts. We all have a stake in these issues, and we should embed co-creation in our work.

The keynote set the stage for the Panel Discussion on Place-Based Policy Making, which expanded on several themes. Emily Morrison from the Young Foundation left a strong impression on me about the importance of grappling with power dynamics. Her main point stood out: “Never underestimate community power; it is integral to making policies and place-based interventions work.” Jon Gleek from Doncaster Council noted that those in local government do not lack capability but capacity. Obviously deep cuts from austerity have left local governments with limited resources. His insight on moving beyond the term “policy makers” to reflect the diverse roles within local government was particularly enlightening.

Juliet Jopson from the University of Leeds provided valuable insights on how instrumental active listening and the open invitation to collaboration is. Talking about developing Areas of Interest with Policy Leeds and Leeds City Council, she brought to the fore the ways academics can work with local government building on collaboration through responding to their needs.

Rich Pickford, from Nottingham Trent University, made the point that strategic partnerships with local authorities are about finding people who will ask researchers questions and these insights are as important as finding the “experts” in the university. Megan Wade from ESRC reflected that people, place, and culture will continue to be a key focus area, and they were exploring ways to fund community organizations directly.

Bec Riley’s excellent chairing raised the important point that it’s not a knowledge problem; people are holding too tightly to the reins of power. Some of the work of academic policy engagement is about getting on and doing it, and quick actions when it’s possible. I loved the point that “change happens when you don’t pass the problem to someone else.”

I thoroughly enjoyed the facilitated table discussions, which offered a space to share practices, ideas, and dialogue. I attended the Capabilities in Academic Policy Engagement (CAPE) session, where we went through a series of exercises reflecting on the fantastic resources developed by CAPE during the project’s lifetime. For me, the power of the CAPE resources lies in their practicality in solving common challenges faced by academics engaging in the policy arena. It was also great to see the UPEN website being redesigned to house the CAPE resources, which I often share with the academics I work with.

The final session of the day was Dr Hannah White’s closing keynote from the Institute for Government, highlighting how the UK parliamentary system is extremely complicated, and even those who have worked within it do not always understand the rules. There is a role for universities to build demand for academic engagement, but it needs to be on a timeline that will be amenable to government. She also reflected that building relationships with civil servants can be a more sustainable route to policy impact.

In conclusion, the UPEN conference was a powerful reminder of the importance of engaging with politics rather than sidestepping it. Within days of my return to Glasgow, the UK election was called, neatly underlining this point. The conference also drove home the power of collaboration, emphasising that policy-academic collaboration must be equal, and active listening is a critical aspect of this process. I have attended many conferences in my career, but UPEN was such a welcoming space. If we are going to solve the many challenges we face, collaboration is a core aspect of this.

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