Open Innovation Team
The Open Innovation Team was created by an official inside government to deepen collaboration between policymakers and academics. Policymakers from across government approach the team looking for evidence, analysis, new ideas, or challenge from outside voices. The team connects them with experts and organises workshops, writes reports and provides reviews of evidence. The purpose of the team is to open up the policy process to outside experts, and help ensure policy is anchored in evidence.
Officials in central government often want to work with outside experts but lack the time and networks to do so. Outside experts, especially academics with relevant knowledge, often want to collaborate with government but lack a clear entry point, or a good understanding of when and how officials are looking for outside evidence on a particular topic. Policy which is made without outside evidence, expertise and challenge is not as well-informed and effective as it could be. To solve these problems, the UK government set up a new team in 2016, pioneered by an official who wanted to change the way policymakers work with outside experts and improve collaboration between government and academics.
The team represents a new way of doing things. It is funded by partner universities, and partially by charging other government departments for project work. It also provides placements to PhD researchers, who spend three months at a time working with the team inside government. In this way, it sits inside government, but also provides a service to policymaker colleagues, and an entry point for outside experts and academics. This means it has been created at no extra cost to the central government. It is sponsored by four leading universities - Lancaster, Essex, Brunel and York. Partner universities add value in a number of ways, but the relationship with them is not exclusive. The team is free to collaborate with other academics as needed.
The purpose of the team is to better inform policy with evidence and expertise, and to help policymakers access outside expertise and academics.
The team has worked on over 50 policy projects so far, benefiting policymakers across government with easy-to-access analysis, engagement, and new collaborations - for example, it has placed PhDs in the Department for Culture Media and Sport with expertise on online disinformation, has brought psychological expertise into the Ministry of Justice to inform their work on how and when people trust the criminal justice system, and has helped colleagues who work on export finance connect with experts on AI to understand how they can use new technologies to underpin their work.
The team is growing - after a 2-year pilot phase, it set up new partnerships with universities, has recruited more lead policy advisers and PhDs, and has worked on over 50 policy projects. As the team grows, it is working on embedding networks of academic experts with the teams it works on projects for, leaving a legacy of new connections and evidence-informed policy across government as each project is completed.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
The Open Innovation Team approach is innovative in a number of ways:
- It is the first Whitehall team dedicated to deepening collaboration between officials and academics
- It has been set-up at no extra cost to central government by securing sponsorship from universities, the first time such a model has been tried out in the UK Civil Service
- It works closely in partnership with university sponsors to develop our approach to deepening collaboration
- It has significantly increased the team’s capability and capacity, again at no additional cost to the central government, by setting up a new PhD placements program that is bringing 50+ PhD students per year into Whitehall on placements of 3-6 months.
What is the current status of your innovation?
Following a successful pilot, the Open Innovation Team is in phase II, and is scaling and growing. The creation of the Open Innovation Team is an example of ‘grassroots intrapreneurship’. Chris Webber, the official who set-up and runs the team, joined the Civil Service in 2012 and quickly became frustrated at the relatively limited engagement between officials and academics. After coming up with a proposal in the summer of 2015, he pitched it to the Cabinet Secretary, who encouraged him to develop the idea further. The team has been in existence since 2016, at no extra cost to the government, and has scaled up its innovative approach to financing by bringing on new university funding partners, bringing in income from new partnerships outside government, including with the private sector, and expanding its programme of PhD placements and policy fellows (academics placed inside government departments to advise on specific policy issues).
Collaborations & Partnerships
The Open Innovation Team exists because of innovative collaboration and partnering. The team is funded with the support of non-government partners - university partners provide not only financial sponsorship, but also give insights from academia and access to valuable networks. The Team devises policy projects with teams across central government, and has also started working with local government to broker academic expertise and insights into policy at the local level.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
The team works closely with academics, helping them to translate their work into impact at the central government level by providing an entry point and opportunities to collaborate with policymakers. It has developed close relationships with team and departments across governments, providing a valuable service by offering accessible and rapid expertise and expert networks. It has indirect impact on citizens, by ensuring policymaking processes are open to outside expertise and challenge.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
The team's achievements to date include:
- Demonstrating a new way of working that deepens collaboration with academics in a sustainable and ambitious way.
- Creating a new Cabinet Office team at no cost to the central government by getting universities to sponsor it.
- Supporting departments on numerous projects, including mental health, industrial strategy, and childcare.
- Establishing a Digital Government Partnership to collaborate with academics on the process of digital transformation in government, especially via applied research on the use of new technologies, such as artificial intelligence.
- Setting-up a new PhD placements program for the team and other government departments.
The impacts observed include:
-More openness to involving academics in the policymaking process
-More evidence-led decision making
-Engagements between policymakers and academics continuing and becoming more ambitious after the team's involvement has ended.
Challenges and Failures
One of the key challenges the team has faced is the difficulty matching up rapid policy timelines with the timelines and schedules of academics. One way the team has responded to this is establishing longer-term collaborations with academics, for example by setting up advisory panels with a number of different experts to provide input to policy teams as needed. Another challenge has been the demand for project support has been high from other teams in government - the team has successfully used its income from generating work across government to hire more policy advisors and expand the PhD placement programme so it has greater capacity to meet demand.
Conditions for Success
The team was set up by an intrapreneur - an official who was frustrated by the lack of expert input into policy processes. This required senior sponsorship and support, especially from senior officials such as the former Cabinet Secretary. The team has also benefitted frmo being housed in the Cabinet Office in central government - making it easier to set up quickly with nonpolicy support in the shape of legal service, desk space and equipment.
The team has been exploring ways to replicate its role - providing more expert input from academia into policy processes - at different levels of government and in different ways. For example, it has explored working with local government, and is in the process of piloting ways to build networks between academics and local authorities. It has also worked on training and supporting officials who engage the team for specific projects to continue working with and engaging outside experts. For example, setting up advisory panels to continue providing input on specific policy areas, and helping maintain networks of academics for policy teams by providing names, contacts and summaries of expert advice to teams after projects are over.
With the right support, academics can become heavily involved in policy-making and add significantly more value than they are normally allowed to. Under the right circumstances and with the right partners, a sponsorship model can be a useful way of setting up and testing the value of a new policy team. Setting-up good quality research and policy projects for academics to get involved in is difficult and time-consuming. Establishing tailored partnership arrangements that minimise transaction costs and increase the impact of projects is a sensible response to this.