The power of local knowledge

By Neil Evans | 10 November 2020

As a council, we value civic and local partnerships greatly. We recognise the importance of working with researchers at local universities and the key role they can play in helping local partners solve complex issues. In return, this provides opportunities for universities to demonstrate impact which is something they are increasingly judged upon.

In Leeds, we had begun a joint review of collaboration between officers at the city council and academics at the University of Leeds prior to COVID-19. The impetus for partnership with experts from across all higher education institutions in the City Region has gained further momentum in light of both the pandemic and opportunities arising from devolution in West Yorkshire.  

A new report from Leeds Social Sciences Institute outlines findings from the review of relationships between academics and policy-makers and practitioners at the council. The review set out to gauge the extent of existing projects and identify ways of accelerating future partnerships. Unlocking the Potential of Civic Collaboration reveals an impressive scale of joint initiatives – with 118 research collaboration projects since 2015 spanning all council directorates and university faculties – and shows evidence of their contribution towards the council’s core priorities on climate emergency, inclusive growth and health and wellbeing. It also highlights a strong appetite for further mutual efforts and makes a series of recommendations for enhancing collaboration, based on a survey and interviews with council and university staff.

Numerous examples of projects in the report illustrate the breadth of topics addressed during collaborative activities: from using research evidence in developing our Parks and Green Spaces Strategy; to piloting dance classes as a means of preventing falls among older people. Projects have ranged in size from the £4.2m Engineering and Physical Science Research Council funded ‘self-repairing cities’ trial of robotics to maintain city infrastructure to workshops bringing officers and researchers together to explore youth unemployment.  

One case study in the report illustrates a virtuous circle whereby shared commitment to Leeds Climate Commission and secondment of Dr Tom Knowland, the council’s head of sustainable energy and climate change, has helped attract funding for innovative research on air quality and low carbon economies.  Indeed, the University’s research has been instrumental in the city’s Air Quality Strategy, for example in pushing taxi private hire away from diesel by promoting the economic case for hybrid vehicles, with almost half of the city’s taxi fleet now hybrid. Another case study shows how academics and council officers worked with disadvantaged children to ensure their views are firmly embedded in our Child Poverty Strategy. The application of data science can be seen in the Quanticode programme with the University’s Leeds Institute of Data Analytics. A model that assesses risk of adults requiring residential care has now prompted further partnership with Calderdale Council.

While the review illustrates an impressive record of collaborative activity to date, it also reveals untapped potential for research partnerships. The survey and interviews provided lessons on collaboration enablers and barriers, along with ideas for strengthening research-policy connections further. Leeds Social Sciences Institute’s analysis of the findings has resulted in twelve recommendations for accelerating research partnerships.

Survey respondents and interviewees emphasised the need for a joint strategy and clear channels of communication as a means of underpinning what has been largely organic interaction to date. The report also recommends development shared priorities for co-designed research projects and appointment of collaboration champions as named contact points in both organisations who can broker partnerships. A very practical means of expanding opportunities for the city to be a ‘living lab’ has been proposed through embedding research into council procurement using our Social Value Toolkit. Leeds City Council has a wealth of data but our analytical capacity has been reduced throughout a decade of austerity, whereas the University has cutting-edge skills and facilities. Optimising data sharing arrangements is, therefore, another principal recommendation of the review.

Council and university staff alike stressed the significance of opportunities for networking in helping initiate relationships with counterparts with shared interests and the report includes suggestions for joint events, placements and co-location. Academics and officers also underlined the value of goodwill and shared commitment in understanding different organisational cultures, timescales and priorities. So, the report suggests measures for improving infrastructure and fostering a culture of collaboration.

Senior managers in the council and the university have now made a commitment to taking forward the recommendations arising from the review. I am pleased to be a member of joint reference group, which will be overseeing implementation of the proposals on a phased basis.

Leeds City Council and the University of Leeds are, of course, just two of the many, many institutions that form dense webs of networked relations across the City Region. We are confident that any measures to strengthen bi-lateral research relations will complement and reinforce partnerships with businesses, voluntary sector bodies and other public sector and educational organisations.

Neil Evans is director of resources and housing at Leeds City Council

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