Wednesday 18 July 2018

Working in the Open Innovation Team

This post was written for Public Policy | Soton, following their facilication of my placement in the Open Innovation Team at the Cabinet Office. The original post can be found on their blog.

I spent three months working on a secondment with the Open Innovation Team at the Cabinet Office. This experience helped me to learn a lot about how policymakers work and engage with academics.

The Government Digital Partnership

The Government Digital Partnership exists to 'deepen collaboration with academics' and bring academic expertise into policymaking. This is done in a variety of ways, from simple conversations through long-term consulting, to building prototypes based on research. The team’s main goal is to help government successfully adapt traditional governance to digitalisation.

I worked on a variety of projects: around Blockchain, Artificial Intelligence, and Efficiency Measurements. One project in particular was well aligned to my own research: I got to advise the team working on the Open Government National Action Plan on the use of online participation tools for citizen engagement. I have written more about this on the team’s blog.

I also spent a good deal of time managing projects and organising events, such as 'Communities of Interest'. These events are open to all interested academics, so if you are working on Blockchain or AI, you should get in touch with the team! It's a great way to engage and network with policymakers.

Working with policymakers

The most important thing that I learned was that it is really hard for policymakers and researchers to work together, as often they speak different languages. I watched a lot of presentations done by academics in those three months, and many struggled to engage the policymakers effectively.

As academics, we have our very own code for presenting work: Introduce the topic, frame the problem, explain the methodology, talk through the data and analysis, and then finish off with a conclusion. Policymakers, on the contrary, are all about application, asking one core question every single time: ‘What does that mean for me/my work/my policy area?'

Though I met a surprising number of PhDs around Whitehall, not all civil servants have an academic background. They do not care so much about how data was collected or analysed. They mostly trust the experts - us academics - to do our job well and be able to back up what we say. They don't need to see the evidence. They simply want to know what the results mean for their work, and prefer to discuss the implications rather than listen to lengthy talks.

Much of what the Open Innovation Team does is around enabling those conversations, and educating policymakers about how to work with academics. Going forward, I hope the team provides more guidance to academics, to make these collaborations even more fruitful. If we understand better what both sides are after, we can achieve great things together.