Building better partnerships

How policymakers and academia can create partnerships that flourish

Marie McAuliffe

Government and governance, Education | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific, The World

6 April 2015

The three simple elements needed for successful collaboration between policymakers and academia.

How do you get oil and water to mix? Will chalk and cheese ever be a harmonious combination? They’re both tricky questions of compatibility, but perhaps not as tricky as the eternal question of how to get policymakers and academia working together well.

The good news is that across a range of research-policy areas there is a long-term and ongoing focus on bridging the academic-policy gap in a wide range of research-policy spheres, including foreign policy, international development, science, education, economics and finance as well as immigration.

Many commentators have highlighted academia’s efforts to bridge the gap by expanding its scope beyond the traditional research community to bring in other stakeholders, including policymakers, practitioners and other knowledge experts as a means of deepening its understanding of complex policy issues in practice.

Similarly, there is recognition that policymakers have a lot to gain from engaging with the considerable intellectual expertise that resides outside of government, most obviously in academia.

The bad news is that none of this is new, which begs the question, why are attempts to genuinely collaborate still fairly rare? And why are policy-academic partnerships prone to failure, or only operate successfully for finite periods, usually as a by-product of specific programs or projects? And why is it important anyway?

Some analysts have pointed to differences in pace and pressure, with policymakers having increasingly less time available, and often less available academic and other research than before.

The greater luxury of time afforded in the academic environment is said to be further isolating the academic research community from policy processes­ – too often researchers deliver their findings after a crucial policy decision has already been reached, severely limiting the influence of relevant research findings. Some perhaps valid criticism has also been levelled at those academics who have preferred to retreat to their ivory towers, divorced from the real world.

To some extent, all of this rings true, but at the same time it doesn’t perhaps fully appreciate the respective roles, responsibilities and strengths of both policymakers and academics.

It is true that the speed in which policymakers are required to provide sensible, balanced and considered advice, or make decisions on complex policy issues, would make most academics’ heads spin.

But that is to ignore the changes in pace that academia has also had to deal with and manage in recent years, and that academics are commonly required to think more broadly than policymakers and meet more exacting standards (such as through peer review processes).

Equally so, policymakers can often struggle to understand the links between the theoretical debates, broader conceptual frameworks, analytical constructs and the pressing policy issues at hand. With increased pace and pressure, making time to read and reflect on the theoretical and conceptual underpinnings of a specific public policy issue or topic has become harder and harder. For some policymakers, there is realistically no time left to devote to wider reading and deeper reflection.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, these stereotypical but not superficial differences are at the very heart of genuine and high quality innovation and collaboration. In a project I’ve helped run with through the HC Coombs Policy Forum we’ve found that there are three critical components to make the most of these differences and the complementary skills, knowledge and expertise that reside in both the policy and academic arenas.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, three layers of interest need to be recognised and managed with vigilance: institutional, professional and personal interest.

The most effective partnerships are those that, while acknowledging the important institutional interests underpinning any formal collaboration, place emphasis on professional interests (e.g. project, program and/or profession-based interest) and allow little room for personal interest to dominate.

This is easier said than done, and it unfortunately sometimes only becomes clear that a partner places the greatest weight on their own personal interest once the partnership is already underway. More often than not, these partners are very difficult to truly collaborate with.

Secondly, understanding and respecting the different roles, responsibilities and strengths of partners is critical to collaboration. This enables policy and academic partners to contribute with confidence, and provides the space to expand common ground and build mutual understanding.

Failure to recognise and respect these differences as well as to enhance those things you have in common can lead to unhealthy levels of disharmony and disagreement – not exactly the cornerstones of collaboration.

The third critical ingredient is the ability to understand and manage joint and individual risks while maintaining productive creativity.

This is particularly important in the policy environment where a multitude of public administration and policy risks need to be managed with care and diligence. But it also applies to academia, where building and maintaining credibility and strong reputations are paramount. Some academics can and do benefit from collaborating with policymakers, including by gaining access to information, data and knowledge.

A healthy respect for risk and risk mitigation that doesn’t stifle creativity and innovation goes a long way to ensuring a fruitful collaboration.

These three ingredients are all critical to successful collaboration in often-challenging environments, and supplement the more textbook requirements of effective communication, developing and maintaining trust, actively supporting independence and securing stable funding bases, to name but a few.

At its heart, true collaboration is about relationships that operate successfully on a professional-interest basis in an environment of trust, and so are able to withstand the inevitable challenges that arise.

Constructive partners understand the need to deal quietly with the more difficult transactional issues while maintaining a clear and critical focus on excellence and joint achievement.

After all, it’s not so much about bridging the gap but creating entirely new collaborative partnerships that draw upon the best of both the academic and policy communities, rather than seeking to merely bring them together.

This is where the future successes for government and academia lie. The opportunities are immense and the potential benefits enormous.

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