We prioritise the production of original primary source material, data and analysis that can inform policy evaluation and facilitate improvements in service delivery, procedure and policy. Our research strategy emphasizes the importance of interaction with users and beneficiaries beyond academia through dissemination, cultivation of relations with practitioners, and involvement of users and beneficiaries in research project design. Public engagement has long been a priority of ours.
We run forums in which our staff can inform and influence key individual users and political actors and develop links for the design of future research. Our special guest lecture series hosts politicians, industry figures, journalists, broadcasters, pollsters, publishers and editors. Staff contribute actively to many forms of media – BBC programmes and UK and international newspapers – informing the understanding, attitudes and values of a wider public.
Impact activities are directed at elected and appointed officials in institutions at national and EU levels, including the European Commission and the European Parliament, the UK Parliament, the OECD, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Scottish Government, DEFRA and the Environmental Audit Committee, and the Electoral Commission. They also target officials in regulatory bodies and agencies, including the Centre on Regulation in Europe (CERRE), the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), and the Office of Communications (Ofcom).
More broadly, we aim to inform public debate, the public understanding of political issues, and political communication. Colleagues have engaged with the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association, the Performing Rights Society for Music, UK Music, Comic Relief, Friends of the Earth, and UK based think-tanks.
Our dynamic impact strategy includes an Impact Champion monitoring impact developments, collecting good practice examples and advising colleagues; training to strengthen staff impact-related skills; funding to support impact initiatives; and professionalizing dissemination of research findings via social media, mass media, public events and policy briefings.
Inside knowledge: informing institutions on managing and working with the European Commission
‘The European Commission in Question', is a landmark, multinational initiative led by Hussein Kassim. With unprecedented access within the EC, it was the largest study of EC officials ever conducted by outside researchers. It delivered new knowledge about the educational and professional backgrounds of Commission officials; the motivations of officials for joining the organization, their career trajectories, and networking behaviour; officials' values, preferred vision of the EU, and attitudes toward the expansion of EU competencies; and internal attitudes to the impact of administrative reforms and enlargements.
It importantly exposed commonly circulating, widely accepted myths about the Commission and highlighted future challenges for the organization regarding its effectiveness, legitimacy, possible cross-national internal tensions and dilemmas in women's participation.
The project was evaluated as ‘a landmark in developing our understanding of how policy-making bureaucracies work and how such bureaucracies should be studied', as ‘a new starting point for those who need to know about the institutions of the European Union', and ‘the most comprehensive and sophisticated examination of the Commission available in the literature ... [A] major advance in the study of the European Union and its governance capacity'.
It has had impact on three main constituencies. It has enabled managers in the European Commission to gain detailed understanding of the backgrounds, motivation and beliefs, careers and networking behaviour of Commission officials, as well as their attitudes to internal operations of the organization, the impact of administrative reform, and the handling and effects of the 2004 and 2007 enlargements. In the word of Commission President José Manual Barroso the findings of the project: ‘will help us make the Commission a more efficient and effective administration that better serves European citizens'. The project has informed the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about the educational qualifications, professional experience and location of UK nationals in the EC and how to improve British recruitment, has contributed to the Scottish government's engagement with the Commission and informed the EU policy community and wider public about the Commission and its staff.
Dialogues, meetings, briefings, tailored presentations to all levels of participants in and interest groups related to EC issues have ensured wide, active dissemination of findings.
Reforming the Environmental Audit Committee
Research conducted by John Turnpenny shaped recommendations of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC). In 2010, following closure of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) and the end of funding for the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), the EAC was addressing the need to embed sustainable development across government policy-making and how to change ways it engaged with experts, while reaffirming and expanding its role in the overall scrutiny of government sustainability policy. Turnpenny's findings formed the basis of two of the thirteen headline recommendations in the EAC's 2011 report Embedding Sustainable Development Across Government.
Building on long-standing interest in how 'boundaries' are drawn between evidence and politics, experts and advocates (key questions within policy, political science, geography and science studies) Turnpenny focused on how the EAC collected and deployed evidence in evaluating and advocating policy to examine the creation and uses of evidence in policy-making. The research tested and clarified understanding of the above boundaries through a close empirical case-study of the EAC, analysing its roles as knowledge-broker, entrepreneur, persuasive advocate and scrutinizer and how processes of demarcation affect the legitimacy granted to policy actors, enabling or disabling ‘ownership' of key issues.
The research changed the relationship of a key government committee to the larger environmental and sustainability policy community, thus affecting the environmental policy-making process itself. It has also helped the environmental policy and research community by broadening the sources and depth of the evidence base upon which the EAC draws.
Independence, journalistic professionalism, and de facto independence
Dr Chris Hanretty has been researching the question of whether public service broadcasters are independent from or politically subservient to the government. Looking at public broadcasters that are trusted by millions of people every day in Italy, Spain, UK, Ireland, Sweden, and Denmark, Hanretty has explored the interplay between de jure independence, journalistic professionalism, and de facto independence.
In his book Public Broadcasting and Political Interference he analysed how directors-general of different public broadcasters had used the space given to them by the broadcaster's de jure independence to set up rules to govern the broadcaster's output - a possible shield in battles with politicians.
As well as providing important insights into understanding public broadcasting more generally, Hanretty's work is also applicable to any organisation having to carry out a public duty without interference from politicians. He is currently extending his work to explore how to engineer the independence of regulators such as Ofcom and Ofgem, ensuring they take decisions in our best interests, not in the interests of the current government.
Making connections between popular culture and politics
Research led by John Street revealed close, but complex, links between popular culture and political engagement for young people.
Two ESRC-funded research projects explored how popular culture informed political thought and action (and vice-versa). ‘Striking a Chord: the role of music and musicians in public action' (Street, Savigny) examined the conditions under which music and musicians mobilise political action whilst ‘From Entertainment to Citizenship? A comparative study of the political uses of popular culture by first-time voters' (Street, Inthorn) explored the ways young people use different forms of popular culture such as entertainment television, music and video games to articulate their understanding and engagement with politics.
The projects explored how cultural actors such as ‘celebrity politicians' acquire the legitimacy to lead political action and successfully communicate political ideas in performance and uncovered how young people value ‘authenticity', particularly celebrities who talked about politics in terms of their own personal lives.
Although there was scepticism towards attempts to lure them into the political process, young people consciously used popular culture as a way of thinking through societal, moral and political issues and, far from being politically disengaged by popular culture, young people in fact interact within it in ways that have significant bearing on the formation of political attitudes.
The research produced valuable conclusions, influencing public debate and cultural understanding with research findings being widely broadcast. Street and Inthorn appeared on BBC R4's Thinking Allowed reaching a combined audience of c1 million and the research also featured in Huffington Post and mainstream publications such as Q magazine and Clash. Street was also the lead expert on a BBC R4 two-part documentary on politically incorrect songs [‘Taboo be Do',] and appeared on BBC TV's Daily Politics Show on music and politics.
The research also contributed to recognition of the potential political significance of popular culture and influenced development of public policy, with research findings being of direct relevance to a range of user-groups including NGOs, media organisations and government. Street was involved in discussions with Comic Relief about the effectiveness or otherwise of celebrity involvement. In partnership with colleagues at UEA's ESRC Centre for Competition Policy, Street also contributed to policy consultations for Ofcom (November 2011) and DCMS Select Committee (January 2012) on media plurality.