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The University of Southampton
Public Policy|Southampton

Evidence to Policy

Robert Thorburn
Robert Thorburn, PhD, Web Science Institute

Open Innovation and Unexpected Results

The Cabinet Office’s Open Innovation Team (OIT) represents a novel and connected approach to an increasingly relevant problem: “How does government, with limited resources, apply the highest level of expertise to ongoing policy formulation?” The answer presented by the OIT comes in the form of a small and nimble team of civil servants supported by PhD students on placement. They are tasked with identifying relevant needs within Whitehall, connecting with leading academics in the related fields and then finally bringing the parties together. For academics this presents not only the opportunity to be involved in the policy formulation process but also to advance their impact, while Whitehall gains direct access to expertise as and when needed.  These are not the only parties to directly benefit though, as the PhD students on placement with the OIT (usually for three months) not only gain an unprecedented level of access to the policy making process, but also directly interact with leading academics from across the UK and abroad.

Fuelling the OIT’s approach to this work is a strong focus on “intrapreneurship”, a buzz word to be sure but an apt one as it describes the team’s nimble nature and focus on rapid transformative action within a very large and established organisation. The results of this approach also speak for themselves, from the OIT being awarded the Cabinet Office innovator award for 2017 to its ongoing involvement in progressive mental health work for under 25’s. The groundwork for these successes does however, not only consist of finding the projects within Whitehall and contacting relevant academics, but also in understanding and researching larger societal, academic and regulatory environments involved. A prime example of this is the team’s work on TIPS.

Trust, Identity, Privacy and Security, or TIPS for short, is a major research area for the EPSRC, including areas as wide as the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence and Distributed Ledger Technology. The clear importance of these areas notwithstanding, TIPS itself is not at all well-known outside of academic circles. This is mostly due to the constituent parts being major international areas of research, while TIPS as an umbrella term is rarely used outside of British academia.

In dealing with TIPS, the OIT had to not only understand this umbrella term but also plot out all its constituent parts, locate the primary academics in each area and then bring them into contact with Whitehall. The advantages in developing such an understanding of the academic research priorities include not only deriving a more representative list of leading academics but also discovering tangential research areas, thereby providing Whitehall with a broader understanding of the research being conducted in any given field. Further advancing the utility of this approach is the fact that new and significant R&D spending by the private sector can also aiding in informing policy formulation. In the case of research council initiatives such as TIPS, private sector contributions to research projects are publicised and can be used as a leading indicator for new technologies and services which in turn may indicate a policy need.

The various outcomes effected by the OIT’s operations are not only unique due to the insights and broader operational understanding of a mixed civil service and academic team, but also because they are positive sum in nature. During a time of austerity and a perpetual squeeze on resources, a natural tendency might have been to revert to zero sum thinking, to fighting for a share. To, instead, create a positive outcome for all stakeholders through an innovative approach isn’t just a major strength for the OIT but also a major draw card for future participants as the team enters its second year.

Robert Thorburn, PhD, Web Science Insitute at the University of Southampton







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