Department of Education PhD Student Siobhan Dickens brought her extensive prior experience in consultancy and teaching to influence and guide a Government evaluation project. Siobhan’s comprehensive account told us how she was able to draw out evidence-based arguments and become a better researcher.
“The Government Campus is a new intervention to develop the knowledge, skills and networks of all civil servants in the UK, and thus, the overall capability across Government, in line with what will be needed to solve the most pressing policy challenges now and in the future. The Campus is a single, integrated intervention drawing together all the formal, semi-formal and, increasingly, over time, informal, learning and development (L&D) opportunities available to civil servants to develop the knowledge, skills and networks that they need, accessible through a new digital and physical Campus, and integrated through a new Curriculum for Government.
The Campus is led by the GSCU (c.350 people), but is co-owned across Government, with Government Departments, Functions and Professions acting both as ‘suppliers’ of L&D opportunities, and drawing down on these opportunities to develop their own people. The Campus aims to generate organisational change in the form of a shift in capability not just through ‘supply’-type mechanisms, but also through identifying and acting on the levers and barriers that shape civil servants’ professional learning in the widest sense, including seeking to generate cultural change.
The main reasons I applied for this fellowship were:
- It was a very close match between the focus of the work – research and evaluation of professional learning and organisational change, curriculum and assessment – and my own Masters and PhD work, plus my professional background. The fellowship offered me the opportunity to apply my existing knowledge and skills in a new, but related, context.
- I was also attracted by the opportunity to work with a very new team on a new and rapidly development cross-Government project.
- I wanted to develop my knowledge of research in Government both from a professional perspective (so I could open up long-term opportunities for more knowledge exchange) and personal perspective (in terms of a potential future career).
I was based in the Campus and Curriculum Strategy and Partnerships team, working to the Deputy Director who leads this team. As well as huge amount of beneficial informal learning, I was also able to benefit from some formal training including: corporate civil service induction (lots of information about working in Government, as well as support with general workplace skills like inclusivity); webinars and talks on different aspects of social research and analysis across government e.g. evaluation, behavioral science, theory of change; data masterclass.
One aspect which surprised me was that I felt able to get up to speed more quickly than anticipated, particularly online. I was very well supported by my team with a list of useful resources and people to speak to from day 1, and found everyone across government very approachable, and generous with their time, including the most senior people. This meant I was able to quite quickly find my way to the people I needed to know, and start piecing together a picture of the relevant features of the context. I would say it took about 6 weeks to have a good enough understanding of the context and the system to start working out what would be needed in detail, and plan specific programmes of work. The Civil Service is a complex sector, with about 450,000 people working in it, and constantly changing, so I’m not sure you could say that ‘understanding’ it ever ends – it is an ongoing process!
My project was focused on developing an approach to evaluating the Government Campus. The project began with a c.2 month scoping phase where I spoke with a wide range of colleagues within and beyond the GSCU to scope out the broad requirements, and determine where my professional expertise could best contribute. This allowed us to determine some key parameters for the intended evaluation, and thus to shape more detailed streams of work with distinct outputs. These were:
- Develop an evaluation strategy for the Government Campus, including the Campus as a whole, and the individual projects/programmes/activities that form part of the Campus. It was agreed that this would take the form of a ‘co-design’ process, using participative methods, which engaged key stakeholders from across Government, alongside drawing on specific social research expertise of myself and others.
- Develop a theory of change (ToC) for the Government Campus, based on a systematised social research process, and, again, eliciting the direct involvement of relevant stakeholders in the design and testing of the ToC. This would be integrated into the evaluation strategy (above) as the roadmap for realist evaluation of the Campus.
Project 1 saw us organize six 90-minute digital workshops, in which we invited a cross-section of relevant participants to discuss both the current reality of evaluation of L&D across Government and their aspirations for Campus evaluation, and to reflect on the levers and barriers that were shaping current evaluation. I trained two members of my team to undertake content-based qualitative coding, and we analysed all the workshop data (recordings/transcripts, meeting ‘chat’ and online collaboration boards) in a systematic way. We generated a standalone research report to outline the findings, and then drew on the discussion/implications to inform our decisions about the evaluation strategy, in the context of my own professional/research expertise, and other targeted input from colleagues in relevant roles in Government. This culminated in the production of two versions of our evaluation strategy for the Government Campus, a full, technical version, and an accessible version for a non-specialist audience. The GSCU plans to publish these in the new year.
To generate our theory of change (Project 2), I identified a sample of relevant stakeholders, who I met with and took notes, and relevant documents. I used a systematized approach (framework analysis) to distill the content of these conversations and documents into a draft theory of change, which was developed into a visual model. We organized three 90-minute digital workshops using a combination of whole-group discussion and break out rooms, using semi-structured questioning, to develop and challenge the draft theory of change. These workshop dialogues (video/transcript) and outputs (‘chat’ and collaboration board) were analysed to generate a list of suggested action points, the processing of which led to the production of a refined theory of change. This theory of change outlines the outputs, outcomes and impact the Government Campus is intended to have, when and how/why, and will form the roadmap for the realist evaluation we outline in the strategy.
For the partner, the aim of this project was to develop an evaluation approach for the new Government Campus, and, through this, to develop a better understanding of the resources, organisational design, and specific actions/activities that would be required to deliver this. We also expanded these aims during the course of the fellowshipto include a deeper focus on the cross-government engagement that would be required to deliver the intended evaluation. In a wider sense, the fellowship meets the GSCU and cross-civil service objective of ‘porosity’; that is, the desire to be more porous, and to benefit from greater exchange of knowledge, skills and networks between the civil service and other sources of external expertise.
For myself, the student, the main aims of the fellowship were to contribute to my development as a researcher by applying my research expertise in professional learning to a different field to the one I am focusing on in my PhD research; to develop greater expertise in conducting research in applied, and, specifically, government contexts and for non-academic audiences; and to contribute to my career thinking and development to learn more about careers in the Government Analytical professions.
Alongside these main projects I also supported the wider GSCU and other colleagues across Government on a range of smaller projects and enquiries relating to research and evaluation in/of professional learning and organisational change on an ad hoc basis. I also contributed to a number of other, smaller projects, for example, supporting colleagues working on leadership and management development, and coaching, with rapid synthesis of external evidence.
The fellowship met all of the project aims. One element that I would like to highlight is that I felt that the benefits to both me and my partner organisation were actually much broader and deeper than I think either of us had expected at the outset, and whilst keeping sight of these original aims, we were also able to continue refining and expanding these in a more granular way over time, as we came to understand more about one another’s contexts and expertise.
More details on the outcome of the work are published here: Government Campus Evaluation Strategy – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
The civil service is quite a diverse sector, with people based all over the country in many different roles, with many different specialisms. As I had a professional career of almost 20 years behind me before starting my PhD, which included consultancy and secondary teaching, it was not new to me to work with people from non-academic background and different backgrounds from myself. I was able to draw on my prior experience before starting my PhD to support my work in this placement, for example, experience managing resources, time/project management, leadership, managing teams, IT and digital skills and interprofessional working skills. I also just tried to bring energy, enthusiasm, determination and a passion for reciprocal professional relationships and two-way learning, which I think was really important for sustaining the work through a digital placement in a pandemic.
One element that I think worked well was that we left about 10-20% of my time flexible throughout the placement so I could use my academic knowledge to support others on an ad hoc basis, alongside the main work. For example, I supported the Leadership and Management team with a paper going to a senior level board by conducting a rapid synthesis of external literature on the topic, and I peer reviewed a couple of National Leadership Centre publications.
I have absolutely no doubt that this fellowship will play a hugely valuable role not only in making me a stronger researcher, particularly from a knowledge-exchange/impact perspective, but it has also opened my eyes to the amazing social research careers available in Government, and this is a route I hope to pursue in the future.
With reference to the transferrable skills and experiences I gained from working with the organization, some of this is covered above, but I would particularly highlight:
- Time and project management skills
- Designing research processes to fit available time and resources (now and in the future)
- Leading and managing teams
- Indirect leadership/influencing
- Writing papers for specific audiences e.g. ministers, senior leadership team etc.
- Facilitation skills
- Digital skills including remote and online collaboration, digital meetings/workshops, managing complex work and processes remotely, managing/leading people remotely.
- Communication skills – e.g. adjusting messages for specialist and non-specialist audiences and different purposes.
- Information management skills in a complex system.
- Systems thinking.
- Leading/enacting change in complex settings/systems.
I would advise any students that are unsure about whether a placement would benefit them – perhaps they are worried about the impact on the timescale of their PhD – to go for it, as it is not only a fantastic learning experience but also a chance to make a real impact. I would also advise to choose carefully, though, according to their aims. For me, working in a field where I was able to draw strongly on my research expertise (as well as prior professional experience) meant that I felt I could be really effective, was able to show leadership, was credible from the outset, and I also found many beneficial connections to my PhD work – I have come out a better researcher in my field (more knowledgeable/skilled, better networked and more qualified – including new publications) because of this experience. I’m not sure this would have been the case if I had chosen something that was quite distant from my research expertise.
I would particularly like to highlight that I have always been very positive about the focus on the ‘T-shaped’ researcher model promoted by Cambridge, and have planned my own researcher development accordingly. The importance of this in the ‘real world’ and future research careers, as well as in placements, was only underlined by my experience. Had I been super-narrowly focused on only my exact PhD research I would not have been able to support the partner effectively at all, and would be unlikely actually to be able to get a career in this organisation in the future. By being able to draw on both depth and breadth of substantive and methodological knowledge in my field, I could be effective. The Cambridge researcher development offer (DTP training, SSRMP, Faculty and other sources) is really well designed to enable you to develop this ‘T-shaped’ profile, but you have to actually be self-motivated to set it up, and recognise the value in it, even when it takes you away from your ‘core’ PhD study for a few hours each week.”
Siobhan Dickens’s placement with The Government Skills and Curriculum Unit (GSCU) took place between April and September 2021