How can councils work with universities?

After working with Michael Reynier, Principal Partnerships Manager at UCL and Nicolas Rebolledo, Design Policy Platform Lead at the RCA on various projects to help move my organisation from letting a thousand partnerships bloom to taking a portfolio approach to partnerships, I invited them to share their reflections at the London Policy & Strategy Network on how councils and universities could work together, which you can see the video below.

We then invited Sarah Chaytor and Olivia Stephenson from the Capabilities in Policy Engagement programme got into breakouts to identify the barriers to engaging with universities and the opportunities:


  • Tensions between basic policy priorities — eg economy v health and the need to ensure research work aligns with policy needs
  • Need for greater awareness within councils of what mean by research and evidence — eg data, lived experience
  • Status of analysts in local authorities — potential budget cuts and reduced staff
  • Lack of ability to iterate ideas — focus on the drive to implementation but less capacity to be agile, iterative, and adjust
  • Doing things as we’ve always done them and perception that we can’t afford something new
  • Capacity for engagement can be problematic — hard to sustain without immediate or apparent values
  • Covid has made people more comfortable working at pace and iterating but I worry that once the necessity given by the pandemic is gone we’ll be back to the same

Policy priorities for councils

  • Understand specific groups impacted by the pandemic
  • Survival… then cv19 response, recovery, child-friendly district, education and skills, regeneration and infrastructure, climate action
  • How can we balance the economic arguments with academic evidence e.g. homes are no longer fit for purpose and are compromising residents' life chances & quality of life
  • Modelling future of town & city centres: 15 minutes cities? how might these develop in the context of Covid recovery?
  • City and town centres — inter-influences of organisations’ and residents’ behaviour. Economic, social and psychological impact. What qualitative research exists?


  • Covid provides an opportunity to do things differently — but how to sustain it?
  • Increase the status of preventative policy and address root causes
  • Re-imagine the ‘policy life cycle’ — so thinking about implementation and impact on people and how that can feedback to inform further development and iteration
  • Testing & experimenting with policies
  • Use of randomised controlled trials
  • Need to build consensus on what projects we want to work on together
  • Raise awareness of the different research methods
  • How academic expertise fits within the ‘jigsaw’ of interrelated policy challenges — and how to bring in people affected by policy
  • Universities can give people the skills needed — these are a broad range of skills
  • Embed the UN SDGs into core curriculum programming and then seek out projects with local partners to support delivering on the global goals
  • Students as designers of practical innovations that residents can use to repair, remake or re-use disused products



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Head of Policy Design, Scrutiny & Partnerships @newhamlondon #localgov Co-founder of #systemschange & #servicedesign progs. inspired by @cescaalbanese