Cambridgeshire County Council Policy Collaboration with Cambridge University Researchers

Cambridgeshire County Council runs the Cambridge University Science and Policy Exchange (CUSPE) Policy Challenges programme, which unites researchers, councillors and officers in a collaborative, research-led approach to policy-making. The programme enables researchers to gain valuable experience at a strategic level within the public sector and gives them the opportunity to influence critical problems in their community, by providing rich insights and offering their diverse skillsets and perspectives. This forward-thinking approach challenges traditional structures by creating a more evidence-informed policy-making process and demonstrates the value of collaboration in delivering positive outcomes in the community.  

The challenge

There are many critical problems the council needs to address which benefit greatly from a level of evidence-informed insight and in-depth research that is often beyond the reach of councillors and officers working at full capacity in relative isolation from academia. By finding a way to bridge the gap between policymaking and academic research, the council gains this insight and research to inform its decisions, while researchers are given the opportunity influence policy in local government.

The solution

Collaboration with researchers from the Cambridge University Science and Policy Exchange in a ‘Policy Challenges’ programme, which brings together researchers, council officers and members to tackle some of the council’s key challenges in the form of research questions. The researchers work together on the questions over a 6 month period, supported by the relevant officers and councillors, before providing critical evidence and recommendations to committees in order to address these key local issues and potentially influence policy. This collaborative approach breaks from the traditional model of policy-making as well as the traditional process of report writing, as external researchers fully author the content and structure of the research reports read by committee members.

The impact (including cost savings/income generated if applicable):

During the past few years of the Policy Challenges, the evidence and recommendations brought forward by researchers have been warmly received by senior management and elected representatives within the Council and have allowed key policy issues to be addressed. Past challenges have included questions around educational inequalities, government structure, and climate change.

Additionally, a past participant in the programme has reported using their experience with the Policy Challenges to obtain a job in policy for central government.

The following four past reports give examples of how the programme has had a tangible, real-world impact:

  • The measures of outcome policy challenge

Members of the team assisted in the strategic restructuring of the council’s Innovate & Cultivate Fund. The fund helps voluntary, community and social enterprise sector organisations deliver projects that assist the needs of local residents. The fund aims to redirect council funding from high cost front-line services, towards support and services that are delivered within, and by, local communities

  • The deprivation policy challenge.

The council’s Best Start in Life programme used policy recommendations set out in this report to inform the development of an overarching early years’ strategy. The strategy proposes how public and community health, early year’s education and early help services can work together to support outcomes for children pre-birth to five.

  • The educational achievement gap policy challenge.

The council’s Schools Intervention Service Team implemented a range of strategies across schools following the recommendations from this policy challenge, in order to give a clear focus on ‘narrowing the achievement gap’. There has since been a 5% improvement in outcomes for pupils in receipt of pupil premium grants across Cambridgeshire, a faster rate than in any of the other 101 Local Authorities.

  • The net zero carbon emissions policy challenge.

Researched and written in the midst of Cambridgeshire County Council’s declaration of a climate emergency, this policy challenge set out the baseline of carbon emissions across multiple sectors in Cambridgeshire and the nature of the County’s challenge of approaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050. In so doing it provided the key evidence base for the Council’s Climate and Environment Strategy and was instrumental in the Council being ‘highly commended’ at the Leadership in responding to the Climate Emergency category of the MJ Awards 2020.


CUSPE Policy Challenges webpage.
Cambridge Journal of Science & Policy case study entry.
‘Net Zero Cambridgeshire’ CUSPE Policy Challenge report.

How is the new approach being sustained?:

The programme lead (CCC Transformation Team officer) and programme founder (elected councillor) work together with programme coordinators from the CUSPE society to plan and initiate each iteration of the programme. There is an annual process in place which enables new cohorts of researchers to apply each year, regular steering meetings once successful and special events including the wrap up event at the end of each annual round. The society also recruits new programme coordinators from the previous year’s participating researchers which ensures both continuity of approach and natural suggestions for improvement born from experience.

Lessons learned:

  • Successful collaboration requires interest and motivation from all participating parties. It may be necessary to foster interest if one party is more motivated, by using incentives and facilitating good communication and engagement.
  • Invaluable lessons can be taken from all past research which have contributed to positive outcomes within Cambridgeshire.