Engaging with policy, and trying it out on the spot – personal workshop takeaways

A few takeaways which have stuck with me from the PRAXIS workshop on heritage researchers and their engagement / potential engagement with policy-making:

We shouldn’t overthink it / expertise counts. 

We are used as academics to couching arguments within a hypothesised context often, which can lead to writing that can be less than definite in its views.  In developing evidence which may be used as policy, whilst data and argument does matter, the format and amount of back-up for arguments is the same as may be required in a typical peer-reviewed paper which is open to close scrutiny.  I am not saying that evidence should be lightweight, but equally in our approach to engagement, we shouldn’t overthink things before submitting. Likewise, academics do have expertise, and can be recognised as such due to their experience and positions – we should not be over-concerned about setting out our credentials to show that our views are valid.

The quality of input considered evidence isn’t that high. 

    Within the workshop, an interesting exercise was undertaken where we worked in groups critiquing materials that had already been submitted and accepted as evidence by the House of Lords enquiry which we were using as a case study. The range of materials was interesting, ranging from simple statements of fact, through to closely argumented positions statements.  Not all pieces of evidence stuck to the brief for the call for evidence, and some pieces did not pass the ‘accept as first year undergraduate coursework’ critical viewpoint.  The bar for what is considered evidence suitable for consideration is not the same as a journal article or what might be acceptable in an academic setting – however this doesn’t mean it isn’t used in high level situations, and therefore as academics we very clearly could provide considerable benefit to contributing (given the quality of what else might be considered).

It can be challenging to think about potential impact in the arts and humanities space.

    There was broad recognition that within the arts and humanities space, engagement with policy was not as widespread; the benefits (for all parties) was not well recognised; the potential contribution not realised; and the thinking process may be more difficult for researchers who are used to approaching the subject in a different way (based on the background of the researcher).  Findings or outputs from arts and humanities research might need considerable repurposing to make them suitable for input into policy, and, as one senior academic in the room neatly put it, their brain has to work in two different modes of thinking as to whether they are using material and knowledge for research or for evidence production and submission.  This is not necessarily easy, as the mindsets are different.

Provide killer facts and do some packaging of solutions. 

    Evidence that might be picked up, quoted and used within discussions, often takes the form of a ‘killer fact’ or turn of phrase which suits arguments being made in a sometimes political setting.  Blinding policy-makers or committees with data might be what we want to do, to ensure people have the right facts to back up arguments, but sometimes it can be too much.  Statistics and data needs simple explanation for the everyday reader who may not be an expert in the specialised field of the academic.  Where solutions can be provided for a problem, inference and obfuscation can sometimes hide the intended meaning (especially in the language of academic papers) – a bit of packaging of solutions is therefore worthwhile and appreciated.

Don’t create work for those reading.

    Allied to much of what has been said already, and perhaps obvious – the reader has to be able to understand what is being said.  Inference, nuanced arguments and theoretical frameworks, whilst important, do not necessarily help a reader who is looking for clarity in what is being said.  Think about the abstract rather than the full paper as the equivalent.  Particularly for Parliamentary enquiries and evidence gathering, simplicity in language is really important – as the weight of evidence from across the board may be substantial.

Relate to the brief. 

    We pick up our students on this – but in looking at what had been asked for and what was submitted, in a number of cases the submission really wasn’t entirely relevant. (This may have been deliberate in some cases where a different point was being put across, but it doesn’t necessarily help the analysers of the evidence).
  1. Potentially great impact from arts and humanities researchers.

The interest in the wider role of culture, society, creativity and comparators than can be brought from different societies, viewpoints, locations, and points in time has the potential to add great depth to policy consideration and analysis of evidence.  We should get more involved in submitting evidence that we do currently.

Academic incentives don’t always relate to policy (impact is often thought of differently).

There was much reflection on the incentivisation scheme for getting involved in policy work – recognising that structures in which many of us work rate research, teaching and particular forms of impact metric in such a way that the reasons for investing in policy engagement may not be high.  Even with the impact agenda expanding, there was talk about the way in which impact has to be evaluated and demonstrated, meaning that policy engagement along the way, as opposed to clearly seeing an outcome or change as a result of input can prove problematic.

Heritage observatory observations

black binocular on round device

Useful discussion has continued around the notion of what a heritage observatory might look like, and there seems to be common agreement that what the sector doesn’t need is another static repository where information, data and what could otherwise be useful knowledge gets dumped and gathers digital dust.  We’ve got those already.  Any such development needs to be useful and ultimately sustainable (therefore useful might be replaced with vital).

In participating in a discussion with the wonderfully entitled ‘helping to help things happen’ group (part of the wider Heritage2020 programme of activity in England), my takeaway is that there are a set of areas/activities where an observatory function might operate which need further considering in a future feasibility study.  These are:

  1. Signposting of data / research / resources.  There is lots out there, but it can be hard to find or sometimes accidentally stumbled across. The signposting could therefore be passively pointing to what is held elsewhere, and also actively undertaking scanning outside the core sector to signpost knowledge and data that is useful.
  2. Brokerage. There is a need for further assistance in putting partners together (users / producers of knowledge), and supporting knowledge exchange in the heritage policy space. There are excellent projects and partnerships already underway (such as the Oxford TORCH Heritage programme, or our own work at the Scottish Confucius Institute for Business & Communication’s heritage and tourism activity streams supporting international working), and also organisations that exist to support this area of work (such as knowledge exchange units or the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement which focuses on the ‘translation’ of research into wider society) but much more could be done here on a national basis specifically within the heritage sector.
  3. Synthesis. Complex datasets, information sources, and technical detail which exist can be synthesised and translated for end users (particularly in the ‘SME’ world of NGO heritage) where little capacity exists to undertake this.  Again, organisations such as The Heritage Alliance and the Built Environment Forum Scotland already play a key role in this, but their own capacity is limited and could be scaled up further.
  4. Horizon scanning, scenarios and research agendas. There could be a ‘think tank’ role for an observatory, looking at longer term issues or macro pictures and drivers affecting the business and policy environment of the heritage sector.  In undertaking the potential roles listed above, an observatory might play a role in forming a shared heritage policy research agenda (taking aspects of the Heritage Counts / Heritage Audits programmes further, and picking up on the UKHRG work previously blogged about).
  5. Rewiring the relationships and transforming practice. A key aspect of any observatory development might be that it can support the transformation of the way we already work in the heritage policy arena, thinking about how we can do knowledge management better, and support skills and practice development at an individual and organisational level. New ways of working, creating shared knowledge, and better ‘evidence deployment’ techniques in policy debates could be the transformative element for making the case for heritage.
  6. Geographical coverage. Discussions at the moment are centred in England, however many heritage policy issues are cross-cutting in terms of geography, and the research funding councils which fund most of the University-centred research activities have a UK-wide remit. Whilst heritage and cultural policy is largely a devolved issue across the home nations, any observatory development should try to work at a country-wide level, not least as the devolved approaches in heritage are already raising interesting opportunities for learning from each other about difference – and can collectively support the wider public policy challenges for the sector that lie ahead regardless of where we live.

 

 

 

Academic journals: Evidence & Policy

Journal summary: Evidence & Policy is the first peer-reviewed journal dedicated to comprehensive and critical assessment of the relationship between research evidence and the concerns of policy makers and practitioners, as well as researchers. International in scope and interdisciplinary in focus, it addresses the needs of those who provide public services, and those who provide the research base for evaluation and development across a wide range of social and public policy issues – from social care to education, from public health to criminal justice. As well as more traditional research articles, the journal includes contemporary debate pieces, articles from practice and an invaluable sources and resources section.

Publisher: Policy Press (University of Bristol)

Website: https://www.policypress.org.uk/journals/evidence_policy/

Access: Subscription; some open-access articles

Journal type: Academic peer-reviewed

Aspiration needs evidence

Ipswich Best Bar None celebrates Purple FlagI have met with new colleagues and contacts at the County Council, the Borough Council and the Hoteliers’ Association over the past couple of weeks.  Discussions generally focused on non-heritage topics such as hotel occupancy levels and booking systems and followed through to community safety and bar/pub operations, including the Best Bar None and Purple Flag schemes.  However all this “tourism talk” had clear parallels with ideas being discussed on aspects of museums, archives and conservation service planning (the more hard-core heritage operations!).  What has been interesting is that the glue linking such topics and meetings was a shared aspiration for what heritage and culture can do in an specific urban setting such as Ipswich, or a wider County context for Suffolk.  The physical infrastructure that surrounds us – the very material of the historic environment – has a lot to offer a location that recognises and understands that diversity in, and care of, the physical built environment draws people to places, makes people feel safer as they walk about, and provides opportunities to explore the culture of a locality away from the bubble of a car’s interior. People linger longer…  The twilight and night-time economy, and the visitor experience of a hotel or pub within its cultural environment is enhanced through the literal and metaphorical ‘footfall’ of lingering, but much more needs to be understood about how people move about in a location, what they do, and how many there are.  There are a variety of evidence bases which can be put to use, and much data does exist  – but a research aspiration over the next few months is to establish a clear data requirement and help design a useful multipurpose evidence base that will link place, hospitality and economy to underpin some some of those local aspirations.

More on Culture Matters

With some degree of tardiness I have also now reflected on the Culture Matters conference in Norwich.  I spent the Thursday morning sitting in on the Income Generation seminar, chaired by the Chief Executive of The Heritage Alliance, Kate Pugh.  The four presentations came from quite different perspectives, but raised in my mind a couple of key issues: income generation strategies are vital for heritage organisations, which goes without saying, but those income strategies need to be properly ‘owned’ by the whole organisation and must be demonstrated to support the whole organisation’s aims and objectives.  Secondly, the definition of income is wide, and an understanding of where and why the money or its equivalents flows in, out and around organisations could often be better understood.  Leading on from this, recognition is needed that it isn’t all about money, but the equivalent, be it time, ‘in kind’ support, engagement and PR or other type of activity should wisely be able to equate an economic value (for those who do think in those terms).  This was described by Ruth Towse as accounting for the ‘whole income’, and put into my mind the work by the New Economics Foundation on social return on investment (SROI) which could be explored further in a heritage context.  A particularly insightful point (which is obvious if you think about it) was made by Alice Marsh, who was talking about gallery and museum shops: often the shop provides the most interactive element of an exhibition, and that staff in the gallery shop may be seen as more approachable than staff elsewhere who they have encountered.  Therefore the shop staff are far more important than most organisations give them credit for – and should be more integral to thinking about the visitor experience.

The afternoon’s plenary sessions, kicked off by Loyd Grossman, saw in typically bombastic style, an assessment of where the heritage sector is and why it still feels undervalued.  Loyd pointed out that the ‘burden of evidence’ required for heritage to argue its case for attention seems higher than for other sectors, and that we can do so much more with the plethora of evidence we already have available.  It was pleasing to hear the sometimes derided tourism income link played up as a key provider of evidence, and a reminder that the Heritage Counts research programme which reaches its 10th anniversary this year.  (I helped establish this back in 2002, as a successor to the annual Heritage Monitor and, subsequently advised on the equivalent ‘Heritage Audit’ in Scotland).  Advocacy remains a key challenge – with killer facts that need to be deployed at an instant in the right kind of policy language – I hesitate to use the word ‘spin’, but that’s what we still need to improve.