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Sarah Weakley and Ben Hepworth

03 May 2023, 1:55 UTC Share

Taking ARIs north of the border

In October 2019 Policy Scotland partnered with the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to host an Areas of Research Interest (ARI) engagement workshop. In this blogpost Sarah Weakley (University of Glasgow) and Ben Hepworth (former DWP; now Ministry of Justice (MoJ)) unpick what made the event a success and reflect on best practice for hosting an ARI workshop.

Can you start by telling us a little about how the event came about?

BH: Sarah and I met at a Universities Policy Engagement Network (UPEN) engagement event, around the time DWP had published its 2019 Areas of Research Interest (ARI). We chatted about the idea of hosting an academic-policy engagement workshop in Scotland; we had a call a couple of weeks later and began organising it immediately. With Scotland having a – small but growing – degree of (devolved) responsibility for some welfare policy at the time, it was a good opportunity to hold an event and share learning. It was also a chance for people to meet and develop new relationships and networks.

What was the role of the policy area context in setting the scene for this event?

SW: The social security policy landscape in Scotland in 2019 was in a period of transition. The Social Security Scotland Act 2018 gave Scottish ministers new powers to create benefit programmes specific to Scotland (e.g. Carer’s Allowance), top up some reserved benefit programmes (e.g. Discretionary Housing Payment) and legislated for some currently reserved benefit programmes to be transferred to Scotland. Notably, all disability-related benefits would eventually fall under the remit of Scottish government via Social Security Scotland.

Because of these changes, there was a vibrant discussion amongst academics and Scottish policymakers about how the programmes delivered by Social Security Scotland would work in practice; including how these programmes would sit alongside reserved benefits like Universal Credit. Universal Credit managed migration was also (at that time) still planning to move ahead across Scotland. Together this created a context where academics in Scotland were very interested to engage with the DWP on its operations in Scotland and to share their experience with civil servants they had mostly been unable to access previously.

BH: As well as the timing being right, I suppose there was also a certain novelty to the event being held in Scotland and it being representative of a whole country. It was unique in that sense, it being a chance to focus on the longer-term, strategic – as well as acute – policy and operational issues. Prior to that, workshops had been held at a range of universities and consortia across the whole of England, but each event didn’t have a theme. The place-based lens at the Scotland workshop provided a focus that hadn’t been present at other events.

The event was held in person, do you have any reflections on this?

SW: As this was the first DWP event in Scotland, one of the key aims was to build relationships between civil servants and academics. The value of in-person events is to make these connections more lasting, with the space for informal conversations that – despite some excellent facilitation – simply do not happen in an online, formalised event space.

BH: I think there is often a misconception in academia that if you work in the Civil Service then that means you must work in London, and that all policy engagement events need to take place there. In fact, that isn’t the case and nearly all departments have offices throughout the UK. It wasn’t difficult to assemble a cast list of government officials from across the different policy areas and convince them to travel to Edinburgh for a full-day research workshop. And, despite my opening line, there were people from London that saw this event as important enough to warrant the journey.

SW: There was also a real value in making clear with participants that the entire day would be under Chatham House Rules with no session recordings. We think this allowed for a balance of information between what the policy partner could share and what academics could share and discuss, which we believe levelled the playing field. In a more public setting, or perhaps even in an online setting which was being recorded, it may well be that participants would not want to be as honest about the issues in their work they may be wrestling with that academic research could address.

BH: It’s interesting reflecting on this point now, following Covid. Online and hybrid events have become normalised, but I don’t know if that’s best. An immediate outcome from the Scotland workshop was that one of the government officials, who was staying in Scotland after the event, spent the following day visiting some of the academics they’d met to deepen conversations they’d started on the day. I just can’t imagine that happening without the in-person connection to act as a bridge. I speculated about this in a previous UPEN blog written in the midst of the Pandemic and, from my experience since, I haven’t seen much evidence that online events generate the same ‘impact’ as in-person ones.

SW: Although in 2019 the thought of hosting this event online – or even hybrid – didn’t enter our mind, it’s important to consider now where an online engagement might be most useful. Again, because the aim of the session was relationship-building and giving DWP officials a strong introduction to the research community in Scotland, an in-person session was preferred. However, for sessions and engagements that build upon this foundation, or are perhaps more geared toward information sharing, these could work online.

What are the important expectations to set for policy partners and academics to run an event like this? What work needs to be done by the organisers on both sides?

SW: There was great interest from academics because it is not possible to find publicly available information about the civil servants that are connected to their area of expertise; most of the contacts are by word of mouth.

From the academic side we were clear that the aim of the event was to not only build relationship and share information but to be solutions-focussed and to bring added value to the policy or practice. While criticism of policies or the policy partner were certainly part of academic presentations, this was not a political event but rather a chance to work with civil servants to bring new evidence to their practices and for academics to hear about where their work would add value.

BH: By the time it came to the Scotland workshop there had been maybe 10+ ARI workshops and they’d developed something of a following within the analytical community in DWP. There were several veterans of past workshops that needed no briefing, but even for new attendees it was relatively light touch. It was mainly about ensuring people felt comfortable about the (positive) contribution they could make at a workshop whilst at no point feeling compromised.

I think a large part of this is related to what Sarah mentioned about making sure the workshop was solutions-focussed and practical – not getting bogged down in things beyond anyone’s control. There was also the ARI publication as a frame of reference and ready-made agenda for the types of research that it was relevant to discuss.

Can you say a bit more about how the Areas of Research Interest (ARI) supported the workshop?

SW: Since 2019 the use of ARIs have become an even larger part of the policy engagement landscape in the UK, now with academic research done about ARIs themselves and organisations like UPEN taking ARIs as an important theme in their knowledge mobilisation work. ARIs set the scene for the types of topics that a department or unit wants to explore with more research.

Because academic research touches on so many different aspects of DWP’s work, it was valuable for us to use the ARI themes to hang the event on rather than just having academic inputs on recent work (which may or may not be of most interest to civil servants). This put everyone on the same page about the formal topics to be explored during the day.

The UPEN subgroup on Areas of Research Interest has done some great work on understanding how academics use them and have more recently published a summary of themes found in departmental Areas of Research Interests in the UK Government.

BH: DWP published its first ARI in 2018 and then refreshed it in 2019. It was organised around the Department’s Single Departmental Plan and objectives – these objectives forming the substantive structure of the sessions at the workshop. The ARIs are a useful ‘object’for knowledge exchange so provide the perfect basis and framework for an engagement workshop.

For the workshop we planned academic presentations (in the morning) aligned with each objective and then roundtable breakout discussions (in the afternoon) to dig deeper into the detail behind the research. This format allowed the workshop to cover the full spectrum of research interests and provide the best possible chance for all participants to be involved in meaningful discussion.

SW: On reflection, we could have been slightly more direct in the way we organised the small group discussions. We found that some of the groups had lively topics while others didn’t make as much progress. For future engagements a set of open-ended questions on the substantive policy area being explored, along with a facilitator in each group, would likely improve the quality of the discussions. These lessons learned come from many more years of organising policy engagement events, both online and in person!

What made the DWP in Scotland event work, from the viewpoint of an academic institution and the policy partner?

Both: Some of the factors that made this engagement workshop successful were specific given the context detailed above. However, there are lessons learned from this experience that can be considered before running an ARI engagement that we believe can be applied more widely:

Consider the context

Think about what is currently happening in the policy landscape and what makes now the right time to hold an event, or what the event will crystalise around. Timing is key, if there is a landmark on the horizon that it would be better to reach first, then wait.

Focus focus focus

Consider what is going to make the event unique, whilst at the same time providing cohesion. For the Scotland workshop this was the place-based nature, for another it could be a specific research theme or cross-cutting issue.

The power of being in person

This has extra significance now, where in-person events are no longer the norm. We think there is substantial benefit to holding an in-person event, especially if it’s about making new connections and widening networks.

Setting expectations

Make sure attendees on both sides are clear about why they’re attending, what they’re expected to contribute, who will be there from the other side, and what the (mutual) goals of the workshop are.

Have an organising framework

The Areas of Research Interest (ARI) initiative and publications provide a great foundation, and nearly all departments have one, start from this when thinking about the agenda and iterate collaboratively.

Keep in touch

As organisers, maintain regular contact throughout the planning stage, to ensure the workshop is well defined and meets the needs of both sides. Also keep in touch afterwards, to – attempt to – track outcomes and reflect on what worked (maybe via a blogpost like this one).

We hope this blog is a useful resource for anyone considering organising an ARI engagement event. If you’d like to hear more, or discuss anything in detail, feel free to get in touch with either of us. Thank you for reading.

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