Posted on February 16, 2018 by Sian Jones
Life-saving drugs, step-changes in energy efficiency, robots and amazing new materials that can transform our lives – these, and many scientific advances, are all the result of research and development (R&D). The UK funds £31.6 billion of R&D a year, and its success depends frequently on collaboration between a wide range of government departments, and with research councils, university bodies, businesses, charities and international organisations. As we look at the fascinating world of R&D, we can also learn much for all types of cross-government collaboration and coordination.
R&D: Driving growth and solving key challenges
R&D is essential to finding solutions to major problems, from climate change to anti-microbial resistance. It contributes to human knowledge that opens up new frontiers, and it drives improved productivity and prosperity, including through creating high quality jobs. This is why the government’s 2017 Industrial Strategy highlights the importance of R&D for UK economic growth, and why the government has committed to R&D to improve healthcare and medicines. It’s also why a number of different departments fund areas of R&D.
Research funding by five key funding departments
Given the need to avoid duplication and gaps in this R&D funding and ensure funding is based on the best understanding of effective R&D, we reported in 2017 on our evaluation of Cross-government funding of research and development. Our study was also prompted by some significant changes in the UK research environment:
From April 2018 a new body, UK Research & Innovation (UKRI) will bring together the former research councils, and Innovate UK and Research England (currently part of HEFCE).
The UK is a net receiver of competitive R&D funding. The UK’s exit from the EU could affect how UK research is funded in future.
The UK government has promised an additional £7.0 billion R&D funding in the five years to 2021-22. This is on top of public sector R&D funding that totalled £8.75 billion in 2015.
Our review focused on six areas of research that we assessed in terms of good practice and opportunities for improvement in their coordination of R&D funding. Interactive case studies of each of these six research fields are available on our report page.
Our evaluation was based on a framework setting out questions around four principles of effective coordination and outlining what ‘good’ looks like. Our Research and Development Evaluative Framework (pdf – 209KB) is available on our website. Although written specifically for R&D, the principles in it are equally valid for all areas of cross-government coordination.
Coordinating across government
Few people would disagree that the approach to a wide range of issues should be coordinated across government, from matters that clearly affect all parts of life such as the environment, to complex issues such as tackling the causes of crime and social ills. But it’s not easy to coordinate different agendas and priorities, gather information across different systems, or integrate processes into different areas of operation.
Our review of R&D funding processes and our Evaluative Framework doesn’t provide all the answers, but does provide a guide to what good will look like and offers questions to aid organisations’ self-evaluation. The principles, challenges and attributes of ‘good’ are relevant to all cross-government collaboration and coordination.
Leadership and coordination
The challenge: Cross-government projects often have no obvious single responsible body.
What good looks like:
- Strong leadership and a culture of coordination and collaboration.
- Collective action is facilitated by various groups and forums that coordinate and align activities.
- Key players come together to identify opportunities, tackle barriers to collaboration, coordinate activities, discuss future needs and developments, understand available resources, and develop partnerships. This may involve setting strategic direction for a sector as a whole or for particular areas.
The challenge: Multiple bodies typically means a wide breadth of activities, multiple priorities, a range of users or customers, and no over-arching strategy.
What good looks like:
- A common understanding of the principal challenges.
- Clarity about the priorities, opportunities, objectives and direction.
- Roles and contributions of key players in addressing objectives are understood and agreed.
- Outputs of horizon-scanning influence decisions about future priorities.
The challenge: Multiple organisations and sectors frequently means different data systems, technologies and standards, difficulties in gathering coherent information from multiple sources, and challenges in ensuring information is kept up-to-date.
What good looks like:
- Data analysis has facilitated discussions on gaps and opportunities, improved coordination, and directed priorities and decisions.
- Decisions take account of the activities of others. For example investment decisions take account of where industry, charities and other nations are investing in programmes, skills and infrastructure.
- Information on proposed programmes, activities and outcomes is shared across organisations to avoid duplication of effort.
- Information and knowledge is used to coordinate and align priorities and submit joined-up business cases and bids, where appropriate.
The challenge: Gathering evidence about the extent to which actions have driven outcomes is always challenging, even more so across multiple organisations and sectors.
What good looks like:
- There is available data on activities.
- Work is undertaken to bring together and evaluate the benefits of activities and to make the case for future plans.
- There is a clear strategy for translating and exploiting the outcomes, e.g. in the case of research, for driving new innovations, products, services and wider public benefits.
Further steps to good performance measurement can be found in our earlier blog-post, Measuring performance delivered through others.
Cross-government coordination examples
Many of our reports highlight the need for better cross-government coordination. The following reports, which can be found on our Cross-government and public administration web-pages, illustrate some of the many areas where government bodies needs to work together.
Government’s management of its performance: progress with single departmental plans
Capability in the Civil Service
Digital Transformation in Government
Protecting information across government
Crown Commercial Service
Government’s spending with small and medium-sized enterprises
Progress on the government estate strategy
Shared service centres
The Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement programme
Cross-government strategies and coordination will be increasingly important for the government to address the challenges of exiting the EU, on top of its many existing programmes and ongoing austerity measures. We hope that our new Evaluative Framework (pdf – 209KB), developed to support cross-government funding of R&D but potentially applicable to other areas of cross-government expenditure, will help organisations get the best out of opportunities to work as an effective HM Government.
I would welcome your comments and invite you to contact us if you would like to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog-post.
About the author: Sian Jones oversees the NAO’s value-for-money programme on Science, Skills and Industrial Strategy. She joined the NAO in 2004, bringing a decade or so of experience in managing and delivering a wide range of research and evaluation projects in a variety of public sector settings. Before taking up her current portfolio, she worked in a number of different areas including environment, farming and rural affairs, local government and international bodies.
Tagged: Accountability Brexit Climate change Cross-government Digital transformation Environmental sustainability Good practice principles Growth Impacts Information management International Leadership Overseas aid Process management Project management Research & development Third sector Universities
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