Tom Tolfree: Case study

at Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG)

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Senior Government Economist and Chief Implementation Analyst, Department for Communities and Local Government

The breadth of knowledge that I’ve been able to tap into during my CSaP Policy Fellowship has been thoroughly impressive.

A fascinating discussion on ‘fractional ownership’ with Professor Jaideep Prabhu at Cambridge Judge Business School, for example, turned out to have potential applications to housing that I would not have foreseen. And a discussion with Bart Lambrecht, an expert on capital markets, gave me a fresh viewpoint on the different financing mechanisms in the housing market. In fact, these alternative perspectives provided some of my most illuminating conversations at Cambridge.

“CSaP is a really important interface, helping me relate the questions I have to the wealth of knowledge available at the University of Cambridge and beyond.”

As a government analyst in the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), it can be quite difficult to single out exactly what I’m looking for from academia, who the most relevant researchers are and how to access them. This is where CSaP comes in; it’s a really important interface, helping me relate the questions I have to the wealth of knowledge available at the University of Cambridge and beyond.

“I’ve been impressed by the depth of analysis which sits behind their understanding of the issues that come up in our discussions.”

My work focuses on housing and local economic development, an area which moves rapidly, so I’m never disappointed when I look at my Policy Fellowship schedule for the day and see academics from the Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research (CCHPR). They’ve really got their finger on the pulse in terms of what’s happening in the field. As well as being up to speed with the policy agenda, I’ve been impressed by the depth of analysis which sits behind their understanding of the policy issues that come up in our discussions.

It’s very helpful that the questions I ask on each of my visits to Cambridge are sent out to the researchers in advance of our meeting, so that they have time to think about them before my arrival. On each of the occasions I met researchers from CCHPR they had prepared a short briefing note on my questions, highlighting key pieces of evidence. This helped me make the most of the one-on-one meetings, giving me a chance to explore more deeply the key points summarised in the briefings.

“The academics I’ve met have had real impact on government policies.”

These bite-sized analyses, supported by further discussion, have been incredibly valuable.. I’ve even used extracts in reviews we’ve undertaken that have been sent to ministers. By sharing their insights, the academics I’ve met have had real impact on government policies, and I was happy to support a recent funding bid by this group to the Economic and Social Research Council, given the impact this work will have on government policy in the future.

I’ve been pleased to find a lot in common with the researchers, including our shared professional values of impartiality and independence, which really helps to build trust. I’m also pleased that my CSaP network has been able to grow in a fluid way: as a Civil Servant, my work changes on a regular basis, so it’s helpful that the Fellowship lets me tweak my questions, and thus the academics I meet, as the priorities of my role change.