Bridging the Gap between Practice and Academia
As a full time practitioner doing a part time PhD I often find myself hopping between the worlds of local government and academia. I also like to visit some of the places that exist in-between. The Public Administration Committee conference, for example, is an annual theory and practice forum that I have personally found extremely useful as a place to develop my academic understanding and confidence (I sketched out the ideas for this post on the train after the last one).
The problem is, however, that events such as the PAC conference are the exception rather than the rule. I read with great interest this piece by Kevin Orr and Mike Bennett on the hidden politics of 'co-production' in research which confirmed my belief that one of the biggest challenges in this context is indeed ‘the distance between the academic and practitioner worlds’. This is something I picked up in a small way in this paper I did on local government attitudes to research degrees (pdf) that I presented to the PAC conference in 2009. In a similar vein this is my Prezi to a workshop for the annual Centre for Public Scrutiny conference in 2010. My general argument is that while local government doesn’t really ‘get’ academia, at an individual level it something we often value. Differences therefore relate more to misunderstandings that to something more fundamental.
This distance between the two worlds is a big missed opportunity in my opinion. While academics are increasingly concerned about the impact of their research so public sector practitioners are concerned about wider outcomes in the community. While academics are being asked to become more ‘real world’ by their funders and institutions so practitioners are under pressure to employ evidence and critical thinking more than they ever have done before. While austerity has severely limited local government’s ability to spend money on training, courses or events so those involved on the academic side live with uncertainty about whether they fit with the priorities of their institutions and wrestle with the future relevance of their disciplines.
Learning and Research Communities
How then to build better bridges between practitioners and academics? I think the answer is to invest in the setting up and support of Learning and Research Communities.
This idea of community is borrowed very much from the world of social media (see my previous post on Social Bureaucracy). It implies something informal, fluid and flexible, something that has a focus on relationships between individuals rather than between institutions and social rather than contractual interaction. Communities can be porous, overlap and interact. They imply a sense of shared identity, purpose and belonging. These agile forms of working allow work to happen across organisational, departmental and disciplinary boundaries – something which is a challenge in both worlds. I think Patrick Dunleavy illustrates the way the world is changing in this respect from an academic perspective rather brilliantly in this presentation on the Republic of Blogs.
Learning and Research Communities could provide a new type of environment in which learning and research, whether formal or informal, would take place. The biggest difference would be support for networking and interaction outside of those more traditional activities.
Supporting a community would mean:
- Providing the community its underpinning support, with a home organisation (lending a sense of credibility and legitimacy) as well identifying the individuals who will perform community roles e.g. admin, facilitator etc
- Establishing a clear purpose and identity around a defined theme for the community such as ‘Welsh Scrutiny’ or ‘UK Directly Elected Mayors’. The important point is to have something that is meaningful and important both to academics and practitioners.
- Determining the basis for membership - this might be through an application or may just be open to anyone with an interest. It also means defining the responsibilities for members and describing how they contribute to the purpose of the community – again this need not be anything grand, simply a short statement of expectation.
- Identify the way in which interaction will take place; online and off. Social media sites such as the Knowledge Hub, Yammer or even twitter can do this. Face to face events are also important whether traditional conference style events or unconferences such as localgovcamp.
Of course the cost of resourcing these communities will be an issue particularly as membership should be free wherever possible. For me this requires working from a different business model, one where supporting communities is in some sense a loss leader for the other, more traditional, transactions that come after. This is the way that many web 2.0 services now operate; a free basic membership with the option to migrate to premium charged services later on.
The piece by Orr and Bennett is a reminder that if we want to foster co-learning and co-research initiatives then first we need to have in place relationships of trust and understanding between individuals. This cannot be done by a top down planning but requires putting our faith in something much less planned - something much more organic. There are, no doubt, many examples of informal joint working already out there that can be used to inspire confidence that this is the way to go. I suspect there are also already examples of Learning and Research Communities in action.
In summary, I think there are really exciting opportunities to be had if we take advantage of new ways of organising to fill the space between the town halls and the ‘ivory towers’ of academia. I am also going to suggest a name; the University of Public Life.
Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lselibrary/3833726778/in/photostream/