Agenda-shaping in the city region
What possibilities exist for humanities and social science researchers to engage with policy and practice agendas in the emerging Capital Region? What are the potential pitfalls in doing so? And how might such engagement be better supported?
In May 2016, CRE spoke with colleagues from across the University and city region. Three speakers opened proceedings with short provocations exploring the topic with reference to engagement with:
- communities - James Stewart, Cardiff School of Journalism
- the media - Sion Barry, Media Wales
- policy and policymakers - Dr Rachel Minto, Cardiff University Law School.
A Chatham House-style roundtable discussion followed.
Together attendees explored the possibilities that exist for the University’s engagement with the needs of the Cardiff Capital Region.
Academics have an opportunity – not least in the context of a relatively small region, with its possibility of direct access to national as well as local politicians, and to national media – to carry out research that contributes directly to the democratic process by stimulating and informing conversations on Capital Region policies.
As well as informing the debate, academics can play an important role in the scrutiny and challenge of policy decisions.
A united stance across the sector is neither achievable nor desirable, and the variety of viewpoints held by the city region’s academics should be taken as a strength. By sustaining divergent views, universities contribute to the conditions within which lively debate can emerge.
A closer working relationship with the diverse range of community organisations working in the city region offers significant potential rewards for all involved – from access for those organisations to enhanced capacity and resources, to new opportunities for community members, and improved empirical research.
Where trust develops through long-term, equal and reciprocal relationships with partners, the benefits can be amplified.
These same communities contain a wealth of untapped ideas and experience. Used in combination, the skills of academics from across all disciplines have a valuable role to play in helping individuals to unlock this potential.
In turn, knowledge generated by and through community activity will offer new, locally-grounded perspectives on the challenges that academics are researching.
The discussion drew on attendees' personal experience to identify potential pitfalls to be avoided by academics.
Academics need to be mindful of not simply ‘wading in’ to our neighbouring communities.
Who shapes the city region agenda and the research that academics carry out in/on it? Who is included in collaborative research and engagement projects, and who excluded? Are the ‘good ideas’ that we generate within our university shared by the communities where we plan to work, or might they end up being an imposition?
The Cardiff Capital Region is a developing concept, shared by (and contested among) multiple groups in the public, private and third sectors, and without established political structures and delivery mechanisms.
The process of working on city region issues can therefore be a complicated one, both practically and – to the extent that engagement entails close association with the ongoing political project – politically.
Engagement with city region communities brings obligations to ensure that academic outputs are appropriately translated so as to be accessible to, and beneficial for, those communities.
While the demands of the Research Excellence Framework have created an imperative to consider research impact, the need to create outputs in a format useful to community partners requires skills that are new to many academics.
Engaging people in conversations about the shaping and delivery of policy is a long-term prospect, and as such can be difficult to sustain. Resource constraints, competing commitments, and staff turnover each present their own challenges.
The challenges facing the city region are complex and interlinked, and cannot be separated into distinct boxes. The question this raises from a university perspective is how we facilitate collaboration between researchers working on these issues.
Every one of the projects discussed during the meeting had been initiated, and continued to be driven forward, by one or more committed individuals. To move beyond this individual drive towards a more embedded and sustainable form of engagement, participants discussed ways in which university structures might further facilitate their engagement with partners in the city region.
This focused on two aspects: stronger legitimisation of regional engagement activities; and the provision of more opportunities for cross-disciplinary networking.
The university provides the framework within which individual projects will succeed or fail. Recognition at the university level of the importance of regional engagement activities is regarded as crucial to success. Four factors were identified that universities might address to reinforce the legitimacy, alongside other core activities, of regional engagement.
Academics need to be able to carve out time for their engagement roles, particularly if they are to engage with complexity in a long-term and embedded manner. Time pressures on early career academics were highlighted as a particular concern if we wish to see impact and engagement become core academic concerns.
What scope exists for universities to make engagement leave available, on similar terms to existing research leave schemes?
Further time can be freed up, and academics can be given freer rein to experiment, if the burden on them to report their every activity is lifted. The lifting of the bureaucratic load is certainly, at least to some degree, in the gift of individual universities.
Engagement activities require money, but that funding needs to be sustainable. Short-term funding streams risk leaving communities high and dry when they end.
A flexible approach within the university towards allocation of funding is also favoured: can certain funding lines be used creatively to cross-fund activities, including buying out academics’ time?
Raising awareness, and celebrating the successes, of regional engagement activities serves to increase their legitimacy in the eyes of the academy at large. Demonstrating institutional commitment can also improve individuals’ standing with other organisations in the city region.
Developing the life of an engagement project beyond the work of a given individual requires the development of networks – among researchers, as well as between researchers and external partners.
Participants called for more opportunities for cross-disciplinary networking. In addition to the practicalities of establishing a suitable networking format, the need for institutional legitimacy is once again clear: to what extent is engaging in such activities deemed a legitimate use of limited time?
Despite the steps that remain to be taken to improve prospects for regional engagement, session participants remain positive about the hugely beneficial impacts that are possible. But as one colleague counselled, it doesn’t pay to focus directly on impact. Done correctly, impact flows from engaged research.