Hannah Rignell: Case study

Head of Community Action, Government Innovation Group, Cabinet Office at Cabinet Office

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Head of Community Action, Government Innovation Group, Cabinet Office

I embarked on my Policy Fellowship during purdah. It was the perfect time to invite some challenge to my existing thinking and to reacquaint myself with the broader literature surrounding my policy area - community action. As Head of Community Action at the Cabinet Office, my policy questions were focused on a mixture of the existential questions that I find myself pondering in my more philosophical moments, usually during recess (‘what is a community?’), and more practical questions which could directly inform policy development (‘what interventions are most effective in building community capacity?’)

I met a vast range of academics during my CSaP Policy Fellowship. Economists, architects, anthropologists and engineers all had something to say about my policy questions. The interesting thing was that despite coming from very different disciplines, common themes emerged - for example, the role of technology in mobilising citizens, and the ongoing importance of place to identity. In many cases, I was surprised by the two-way nature of the discussion. I had expected these illustrious, gown-ensconced Cambridge dons to impart their wisdom upon me during our one hour meeting. Some did work like this - but in many cases I was sharing what we have learnt from the community programmes we have run. I also acted as a broker, introducing the academics to other civil servants.

I was lucky enough to take part in a pilot of the CSaP Affiliate Network, whereby CSaP Fellows can visit other affiliated universities. I spent a day at the University of Sheffield, which has a strong tradition of research in community action and localism. The visit really broadened out the learning from my Policy Fellowship, giving valuable context. I learnt about how universities can themselves be place shapers and drivers of community development; how the national housing debate is not reflective of the experience of northern cities; and how research can, in and of itself, build community capacity.

My Policy Fellowship has influenced my work directly and indirectly. As a result of requests during my Policy Fellowship meetings, we are due to publish the data we have collected on Community First and Community Organisers so that academics and other researchers can conduct new analyses. Next month, an undergraduate student, supervised by one of the academics I met, will start analysing Community First programme data for his dissertation. Less directly, I’ve found myself precisely reciting some of the arguments I heard in my Policy Fellowship meetings in my day job, because I found them so convincing (I hope those I met will forgive this light form of plagiarism). The biggest gift the Policy Fellowship has given me is space; time carved out of a busy policy job to think about the issues and build networks that will enable me to deliver up to date, well-informed policy advice for Ministers.