Institutional capacity for regional and economic social development

8 July 2024


Institutional capacity for regional and economic social development

Reported by Laura Sayer, CSaP Events Coordinator

As a part of CSaP's Annual Conference 2024, Nicola Buckley (Director Fellowships and Networks, Centre for Science and Policy) chaired a discussion on Institutional capacity for regional and economic social development. The panel included Andrew Westwood (Professor of Government Practice, University of Manchester), Owen Garling (Knowledge Transfer Facilitator, Bennett Institute for Public Policy, University of Cambridge) and Dr Alison Clarke (Capacity and Capabilities Research Associate, Insights North East).

"A moment of institutional building"

Andy Westwood opened the session by exploring several points which are vital to the conversation around institutional capacity. He emphasised that the UK is currently in “a moment of institutional building,” highlighting that most institutions, particularly Combined Authorities are new institutions, and this presents challenges.

"Given the nature of the inequality we find in this country, the challenge and problem remain."

Professor Westwood explained that institutions would need help to grow in their capability if they were to have a real impact upon economic and social development across the UK. Speaking shortly before the 04 July general election, Professor Westwood argued that the possibility of a new government could provide a chance to build on institutional effectiveness.

Owen Garling stressed several important factors that need to be considered:

  1. The importance of relationships, which take time, effort, and investment to foster;
  2. Finding a language to share work that has already been completed;
  3. Involving policymakers in an active and open dialogue;
  4. Creating a framework to help policymakers think about the role of academia;
  5. Social infrastructure.

Alison Clarke from Insights North East, explained that the North East Combined Authority, where Insights North East is based, is the biggest combined authority in the Country (newly formed in May 2024) covering seven large areas. Dr Clarke highlighted three points crucial to Insights North East’s thematic work: 1) climate action, 2) inclusive growth and 3) health and wellbeing. Drawing on existing research, she explained Insights North East offers a headspace for academics and policy makers, helping them to access and commute data.

Evaluating institutions

Nicola Buckley asked the panel about evaluation markers for institutions. It was argued that despite the measurements not telling the whole story, it was often in the proof of the policy itself, with Mr Garling presenting the recent Levelling Up White Paper as an example. The panel suggested that markers can often be found in the economic value, as well as the social and civil value of ‘social infrastructure’, as well as improving and giving institutions the tool to expand their ideas. However, it was also noted that it was a balancing act to keep both policymakers and academics happy.

Questions from the audience included asking about the best form of institutional government, with Dr Clarke emphasising the importance of stability and political consensus especially in areas that require greater economic development. Mr Garling continued that it was important that places should not be set against each other and emphasised the need for flexibility of different models. For instance, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority is the largest and most established and it could be argued to be the most successful of the combined authority. However, the experience of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority is not necessarily the most condusive for other combined authorities.

Understanding institutions and devolution

Gareth Giles (Co-Director, of the Centre for the South, University of Southampton) asked “Where are the roles of universities in the processes of devolution and meeting evident needs?” Dr Clarke responded by highlighting that universities can be “convenors of conversations”, and it was argued by the panel that allying priorities in local areas can benefit both parties. However, alot depends on whether local civic leaders trust universities to provide answers.

Further questions from the audience provoked discussion surrounding thoughts of whether devolution might be considered isolationist, and whether the regional institutions were created in response to the private industry failing to address some of wicked problems policy makers face. The panel discussed the importance for fluidity and flexibility for long-term planning, for institutions across the country to work together to create further capacity for growth. They also highlighted that institutions do bring their own values as well as their own networks which are essential to create conditions for areas to thrive economically and socially.

Overall, the panel and audience highlighted the theme of working together to build and grow relationships between institutions with the ultimate goal of improving the economic and social conditions for the people that they serve.

Image by Su Ford, CSaP Centre Coordinator

Nicky Buckley

Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge

Laura Sayer

Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge