Taking territoriality seriously: Policy impact at different government levels

Rethinking Policy Impact
Publication Date

Any sustained attempt to rethink policy impact in the United Kingdom needs to take territoriality seriously. The UK governs territory through complex and asymmetrical political institutions and policy systems. They operate in diverse social and economic contexts. What we might call the UK’s four central governments – in Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and London – each lives in something of a world, or ‘village’, of its own. They operate within distinct public spaces across which the terms of debate can differ.  They interact, of course – although at times the interaction seems to deepen mutual incomprehension. As a territorial state, the UK is difficult for government to ‘read’.

This blog aims to provoke further discussion and debate rather than a comprehensive or systematic account of territorial policy impact. The impressions on which it is based draw from my experience coordinating ESRC research programmes and working with the UK in a Changing Europe (UKiCE) initiative together with engagement in collective projects (Between two Unions) and established research centres Wales Governance Centre (WGC) and Centre on Constitutional Change (CCC). These centres, projects, programmes and initiatives have all sought to inform and contribute to wider public debate as well as engaging with policy-makers (it would be worth thinking through the relationship between these two types of activity.)

Overall, the administration in London seems less open to engagement with external social scientists than are those in Cardiff and Edinburgh. Northern Ireland is also distinctive. No doubt these differences reflect variations in the administrations’ sheer size and internal capacity. Distinct administrative cultures may be important as well. Any exercise in engaging with officials involves a switch of code, register and/or tone. My sense, though, is that the degree of switching needed to engage formally with Whitehall is bigger than that required for Cathays Park or St Andrew’s House.

Though I think the differences run deeper, since much of my ‘engagement’ work has been on devolution, my impressions may reflect the greater importance of these issues in Scotland and Wales relative to London. My sense is that the few current/recent senior civil servants with significant devolved experience – think Philip Rycroft or Sue Gray – bring a perspective that differs from what often appears as a ‘devolve and forget’ Whitehall norm. On leaving the civil service, Rycroft spent the first half of his civil service career in Edinburgh. On retiring, he reflected on devolution and the ‘uphill work’ of getting ‘Whitehall to realise just how profound those changes are’.

This blog is part of the research project Rethinking Policy Impact

A UK-wide conversation on the principles, goals and approaches that should guide the policy impact agenda in higher education.

Find out more about the Rethinking Policy Impact project


Wales has a particularly small and recently developed institutional policy system. A handful of university-based research units provide core aspects of the evidence-base for its devolved policy-makers in Wales. For example, systematic annual data on Government Expenditure and Revenue was unavailable until 2016, since it has been provided by WGC’s Wales Fiscal Analysis group. Based on Freedom of Information requests to the Ministry of Justice, WGC researchers have also unveiled disturbing evidence on Justice Policy matters, from the treatment of female prisoners in Wales and black people’s experience of the policy and courts system.

An ESRC’s ‘What Works Centre’, the Wales Centre for Public Policy (WCPP), provides a distinctive model of university research-government partnership. A WCPP-Welsh Government dialogue sets the agenda for part of the Centre’s work. WCPP mediates between academia and government. It seeks to diversify input into Welsh policymaking by commissioning applied research from leading experts across the UK and internationally. 

Scotland and Northern Ireland

No doubt partly rooted in differences that pre-date political devolution, Scotland has a more extensive policy capacity than Wales. As well as a bigger public service capacity, Scotland has a larger university sector, including several highly prestigious institutions. Equally, specialist research centres, such as the CCC or Fraser of Allander Institute reach from Scotland’s universities into its public and policy life. In my experience officials in Scotland take a distinctively proactive approach to social science research. They have sought out and nurtured relationships with major ESRC investments I have directed both at the programmatic level and with the full range of individual projects, including those not directly concerned with Scotland. No other government adopted this approach.

In Northern Ireland, matters are more sensitive. Policy and advice can get caught up in sectarian antagonisms. Relationships between social scientists and policy-makers may be concentrated at the more discreet end of the spectrum. While institutionalised academic centres seem less prominent in the region, a range of ESRC funded projects play a key role generating evidence for public and policy debate in and concerning Northern Ireland. The Queen’s University Belfast ‘Post-Brexit Governance NI’ project provides polling data and accessible evidence about the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, terrain also explored in a different, socio-legal vein by the earlier ‘Performing Identities’ project. Sussex University’s Trade Policy Observatory is working with the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland, providing access to firm-level data for detailed analysis of trade between the region and GB.


Administration at the UK’s centre, by contrast, seems more self-contained. It has a strong and distinct set of norms, conventions and routine operating practices, which sometimes suggests scepticism about academics and their ways of working. In my experience with Whitehall dating back over the past 25 years or so, I have a sense that interactions between social scientists and civil servants are sometimes marred by the stereotypes of the other that each brings into the room (not without justification). Of course, Whitehall departments differ in their approach to engaging with academics. DEFRA, for example, is working with researchers to engage stakeholders in the design and implementation of post-Brexit agri-environmental policies. Equally, some economists negotiated access to sensitive government-held firm-level data – and even developed on-going collaborative projects that at once generate academic research and inform policymaking.

Drawing on a wider range of social science disciplines, UKiCE has done a remarkable job of getting on the inside of the SW1 ‘bubble’, with Whitehall, Westminster and the media. I think it makes sense to think of a UKiCE ‘model’, roughly made up of concentric rings. Director Anand Menon has carved out a distinctive place in UK public debate, which lends ‘bubble’ credibility to the whole operation.  At its heart is the hub at Kings College London which blends academic expertise and in-house research capacity, with Whitehall and media experience.

UKiCE’s extended reach is grounded in its network of Senior Fellows. They are distributed around the UK and have diverse substantive expertise from a range of academic disciplines. A sustained period of working together has generated strong relationships and powerful patterns of collaborative work among the Senior Fellows and with the hub team. As a result, UKiCE has been able to rapidly provide rich evidence to address complex issues that require engagement of multiple disciplines and perspectives from all four nations/jurisdictions that make up the UK.

UKiCE has also developed as a platform for social scientists across the UK and beyond to engage with public debate and policymakers. The initiative’s credibility and reach provides opportunities (including formal training) for a wide range of academics at various career stages. From formal workshops for ECRs to UKiCEs guidance on style and (sometimes brutal) editing processes, the initiative helps academics to communicate complex research findings in ways that are more likely to be absorbed by, say, Whitehall.

Local impacts

Although impact varies in different parts of the UK, the local state has been squeezed hard everywhere over the last decade or so. And local government has suffered from repeated rounds of reform generating ineffective structures across the UK – think of the fragmentation of 22 local authorities in Wales or the centralising tendencies in England and Scotland. Particularly in England, retrenchment and centralisation have meant that local government’s policy capacity has been largely stripped away. But universities have the potential to work with – and support the analytical capacity of – local authorities. Various approaches exist – from the Leeds-based ‘Northern Exposure’ project, via the Edinburgh Futures Institute work with the Edinburgh and South-East Scotland City-Region Deal to the UCL-led work on Local Data Spaces.

Diversity and interdisciplinarity

I will wrap up by pointing to two other features of academic policy work. First, across the board, informal engagement built on sustained relationships of trust (based as much on considered disagreement as consensus) is an important and hard to grasp aspect of engagement and impact. Reporting this ‘impact’ could easily undermine the relationships on which it is constructed. It is often impossible to back up with evidence and may be inappropriate or even unethical to make bring into the public domain. Informality also clearly risks reproducing and entrenching patterns of structured inequality in the opportunities for influence.  Academic platforms – centres and initiatives – seem to be increasingly important as providers of pathways to impact. These platforms must attend to the support they can offer to a diverse range of academics (and others) in the provision of various forms of impact or engagement.

Second, I am struck by the interdisciplinary range of territorially-oriented impact and engagement work. Economics sometimes seems to stand on its own, although Diane Coyle has called for ethnographic research to be given more credibility at UK government level. But, from Post-Brexit Governance in Northern Ireland and the WGC, to WCPP, CCC and the UKiCE, we see projects, centres and initiatives that range across legal, political and sociological analysis, as well as policy, management and economics. Convening research across disciplines is, it seems, an essential aspect of policy impact and engagement at different territorial levels of government and across them.

Professor Dan Wincott holds the Blackwell Law and Society Chair at Cardiff University School of Law and Politics, directs the ESRC’s ‘Governance after Brexit’ Research Programme and is a member of the UK in a Changing Europe’s Senior Leadership Team.

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.