Articles Rubbing along: eight lessons for how to work across the UK

Rubbing along: eight lessons for how to work across the UK

Part of the backwash of Brexit is that the once-United Kingdom might split up. The Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon, riding high on recent electoral success, is calling for a referendum on leaving the United Kingdom, so-called IndyRef2, and then joining the EU as an independent state. ‘Brexit Day’ was marked with a pro-Scottish independence rally. Our former Nesta colleague Adam Price, leader of Plaid Cymru, has promised a Welsh vote on independence  by 2030, and the handling of Brexit ‘backstop’ in Northern Ireland has brought up the thorny issue of a united Ireland.

But a breaking up of the Union is based on speculations on the future.  Right now, we still need to rub along. And even if there is a split across the UK, we will share a lot of trade, culture and boundary-spanning social problems. The question is, how do organisations and projects that traverse all the parts of the UK make it work?

Below are eight lessons gleaned from our past eight years working across the UK.  The lessons are also gathered from: Evidence Exchange, a project we ran with Carnegie UK Trust and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, that looked at smarter ways of sharing insights across the UK; and a roundtable at Nesta on What Works Centres across the UK with the Wales Centre for Public Policy, Queen’s University Belfast, and others. However, these lessons are my own personal views, and thus probably suffers from emanating from deep within the London Bubble – and may be most useful for other Londoners seeking to burst that bubble.

Lesson 1. Do the face-time.

Certainly in the initial stages of any cross-UK working, it’s good to get to know each other. An investment in time travelling to meet colleagues face-to-face and understand their context is time well spent. Joan Broder at the Centre for Effective Services in Northern Ireland recommended that you “do face-to-face where you can. Build your team in the early development phase to give solid foundations for difficult times ahead, so you are not speaking to faceless people later on.Joan suggested taking it in turns for hosting meetings around the UK – doing the rounds of the four main jurisdictions.

But don’t just focus on the big cities. You need to get out of the capitals, according to Rob Ashelford, co-lead and Head of Y Lab (Programmes), a partnership between Nesta and Cardiff University: “I think if you’re running a UK wide programme from London the only thing that matters is time on the ground.  And that means more than hitting the three other capitals – you have to be in as many places as possible. For Innovate to Save we held events up and down Wales and engaged people we’d never have reached otherwise”.  It’s also essential to ‘hit the ground’ in other parts of England, such as Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham or other towns and cities outside the South-East.

Lesson 2. Think carefully about the travel burden.

The UK may not be vast, but it can still be difficult to get around.  “There is no simple answer to where is best to hold a physical meeting”, according to Jennifer Wallace, Head of Policy at the cross-UK Carnegie UK Trust, “but do think carefully about travel burden: it’s important both in terms of valuing people’s time and carbon footprint. Try not to organise meetings that are only accessible by early morning flights or an overnight stay,” says Ms Wallace. “And if you are organising the meeting and/or lucky enough to be in the location of the meeting, be aware that others may well have got up at 4.30 am to get there”. Plenty of caffeine may also be a nice gesture for tired new arrivals.

Lesson 3. Don’t parachute staff in.

Although doing ‘face-time’ across the UK is good, it is simply unacceptable for London-based organisations to parachute people in. You need to have credible people on the ground – who are steeped in the local policy context.  Adam Lang from Nesta Scotland says: “for a UK-wide organisation to have traction and relevance in Scotland it needs to have some degree of physical presence here and tailor all aspects of its work to be relevant to the Scottish operating environment and political context.” 

Lesson 4. Be alive to the totally different legal and political systems in some parts of the UK.

For example, Northern Ireland politics are well known, but what is less known is that there is a wholly independent civil service – run separately from the rest of the UK. The Northern Ireland Civil Service has had the challenging task of running the country without Ministers for over three years – although there is welcome news that a power sharing executive at Stormont is back. Scotland is the most politically and culturally devolved nation within the UK and has separate and distinct regulatory and legal systems for charities and organisations working there. It also has a very different economic mix (it’s primarily a nation of SMEs) to the rest of the UK, certainly the South of England. 

Lesson 5.  Adapt messages and language.

For example, few people working in policy in Scotland really care about the Guardian over the Scotsman or Herald.   Outside of England, there has not been the same obsession with marketisation of public services. When it comes to research, It may be necessary to totally adapt your message, such as the Scottish Approach to Evidence. This lesson is related to the lesson 3 above: you will need credible staff to help guide you through the local politics. For example, in Northern Ireland, we had a very savvy consultancy Stratagem Northern Ireland to help us navigate the sensitive to sectarian and other cultural issues in the area, and then we hosted a staff member at the Centre for Effective Services (that also works south of the border in Ireland), and the Centre for Evidence and Social Innovation in Queen’s University Belfast.

Lesson 6.  Proportionality isn’t the answer.

The four jurisdictions of the UK each have different contexts, each of which needs space and time to be explored in any research programme or project. As Jennifer Wallace, Head of Policy at the Carnegie UK Trust says: “projects that ‘bolt on’ devolved jurisdictions don’t work, they have to be built into project design. So nine case studies in England and one in Scotland, Wales and NI may feel proportionate, but you are going to have to do a lot of leg work to understand the context the three non-English case studies are working in.”  

Lesson 7. Get the tech to work.

It can be exasperating to have bad connections or bad audio, as attendees drop out of video calls, or fail to hear crucial things being said.  Fix it!

Lesson 8. Embrace the difference!

But whatever cross-UK techniques you deploy, there will never be a perfect answer that works for everybody. Just live with that and welcome the differences between rural vs urban, north vs south, or London vs the rest of the world.  Our 2015 seminar and report Devolution as a Policy Laboratory with the Institute for Government and Carnegie UK Trust, showed that we could test different approaches across the UK – and learn from our differences, from our mistakes, just as much as successes.