William Fleming’s fellowship term with The Cabinet Office, focused on supporting the team in developing and evaluating a pilot crowd forecasting project to improve the quality of information and evidence used in government decision-making processes.

Wiliam was complementary about the opportunity provided by Cambridge Grand Challenges and The Cabinet Office to develop his professional experience:

“Crowd forecasting was popularised by the book ‘Superforecasting’ and is a novel, innovative approach to predicting the future of the challenges faced by governments. I worked as a member of the team delivering the UK Government’s pilot crowd forecasting tournament.

The title of my project was ‘Crowdsourcing insights from across government’. I wanted to work on this project as I saw it as a chance to gain experience in the British civil service, an industry in which I had interest in working in and alongside. It is of course public sector, which alleviated some of my concerns regarding giving free and highly qualified labour to private organisations as with some of the other placements on offer. I hoped it would give me the chance to work in an innovative and important project within government to provide insight to the industry and its machinations.

This project in particular is focused on improving the quality of information and evidence used in government decision-making processes. As someone engaged in empirical policy-focused research, this was of interest to me. The aim of the fellowship was for me to contribute to analytical outputs for the project, to lead on academic engagement in an innovative project, and to assist with project management.

There were some challenges in beginning the placement due to the required security clearance for a civil service placement. Completing it during the Covid-19 pandemic also meant that it was almost entirely virtual which brought with it some difficulty. These challenges were less to do with the ability to work independently, which was achieved within a few weeks, but more about understanding place within the organisation.

It was beneficial to work in a role with colleagues who did not have an academic research background as it allowed me to identify the different skills people develop in different careers. Having said this, my supervisor had completed his own PhD and this was a helpful point of support.

My key deliverable contributions were: supporting the write up of project pilot evaluation report as a co-author with senior readership; regular analysis products; internal blog writing; building a network of engaged academics for the project; provided critical support for the project.

My academic expertise was not used in the role undertaken, but it was more the general skills which come from being a researcher: independence, critical challenge, comfort with theoretical and strategic ideas, project planning and analytical rigour. I took on a number of responsibilities such as a blog series and report detailing relevant literature, engagement with academic networks and research communities and encouragement to provide critical sense-checking.

My time at The Cabinet Office was less about new skills but more applying existing skills in different ways. For example, data science skills applied in a different way, project management within a team rather than an individual PhD project, etc. The fellowship gave me the opportunity for professional development and experience. As a PhD student, a common criticism is that we have not experienced the so-called real world of work and this fellowship provided me with the experience of working in a corporate organisational environment, supporting colleagues and with regular deliverables. The fellowship provided the opportunity to exhibition transferable skills in analysis and communication.

This fellowship has provided invaluable work experience and professional development in a respected organization which I would not have gained in any other way. Working on a project with an academic basis has also opened avenues for future research projects. The biggest challenge is in juggling the full time placement and the PhD. The PhD can’t simply stop if one has academic career aspirations. Teaching and research responsibilities and targets cannot simply be dropped for six months. I feel I did not manage this balance particularly effectively and hope that others manage better. I would advise doing the placement as early as possible in your PhD when these responsibilities are less pressing. I would also ensure that your placement supervisor is supportive of this and allows time off when needed to allow you to complete the PhD related work as I found this helpful.

Overall I would recommend a placement to other students. It has provided me with great professional experience and opened me up to industries and research areas where I previously had no experience. I have been able to develop my transferable skills and understand that transferability in ways I hadn’t fully realised. It also provided a needed break from my PhD after what had been a difficult, frustrating and lonely year because of the pandemic.”

William Fleming’s fellowship at The Cabinet Ofice took place between April and October 2021

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