Urban Wellbeing in Policy Roundtable: Reflections on valuing, sustaining and bringing partnerships to life

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By Susie Drummond and Jessica Pykett

What kind of partnerships work, how do they get started and how can they be valued and made to last? This is a recurrent question for academics, community organisations and policy makers who are focussed on knowledge exchange and engagement beyond their own sectors. Changing current two-way systems of dialogue to wider and sometimes messier relational ecosystems is an important development needed to bring partnerships to life.

With national leaders from policy, research and community, this roundtable covered how to influence regional policy, ways to collaborate and use evidence, the power of participation and coproduction, and changing lives through relationships. We provided lessons learnt from a two year Research England funded project which aimed to develop a community-policy-research ecosystem to address urban wellbeing inequalities. The full report and a 2 page step-by-step guide for community organisations, regional authorities and research institutes can be found at the Centre for Urban Wellbeing website.

Dr Peter O’Brien gave an overview of the Yorkshire and Humber Policy Engagement and Research Network (Y-PERN) which has shown how it is possible to navigate the devolved policy landscape at the same time as co-ordinating knowledge exchange activity at multiple universities and multiple local and regional authorities. Policy fellowships and a community panel have been integral mechanisms for Y-PERN.

Sarah Chaytor, Director of Strategy and Policy at UCL, spoke about her roles as Co-chair of UPEN (Universities Policy Engagement Network), CAPE (Co-investigator at Capabilities in Academic Policy Engagement) and IPPO (International Public Policy Observatory).  Each of these provides important professional networks to share insights and learning on knowledge engagement with a particular focus on public policy. These networks and programmes currently provide several activities and opportunities such as policy fellowships, seed funding, training and evaluation. One of the key concerns driving this work is to “do things with evidence”, acknowledging the gap that currently exists between knowledge, implementation and practice. Recognition of and support for knowledge brokerage roles and practitioner networks is often overlooked.

Jacob Coburn and Tania Carregha from the Young Foundation and Institute for Community Studies raised important issues around defining civic leadership and responsibilities, and thinking about new ways of relating, embodied knowledge and creative forms of peer research. Responsible and responsive approaches to data ownership, capabilities, and participatory analysis were key to this work.  Anne Pordes Bowers from Newham Council Centre for Health and Care Equity highlighted how communities should be able to bring researchers and policy makers to their own contexts, rather than the other way round. Amabel Mortimer from University of Gloucestershire mentioned efforts to align priorities between partners from different sectors. A fantastic set of examples was shared by Professor Sally Pearse, Strategic Lead for Early Years, and Director of the Early Years Community Research Centre at Sheffield Hallam University, where through a successful collaboration between primary schools, a nursery provider, the local authority and university, researchers are able to provide support for local families, meeting immediate needs, developing new ways of listening and fostering lasting mutual relationships. Their work addresses significant societal injustices around learning and opportunity, food and fuel poverty and economic insecurity.  Research participants and practitioners modelled working together, establishing norms of listening and responding, and attention to “emotional labour and the feeling of policies” which so often goes unheard in the course of knowledge exchange.

Creating connections and relationships was a key underlying idea, “changing lives through relationships” said one speaker.  Outstanding issues are the problem of how to value and recognise knowledge exchange in career pathways across different sectors, and how to foreground the central goal of increasing community power. So what is needed to shape the next steps for collaborating on civic university commitments and place-based ways of working? Here we provide some key themes arising from the contributors and discussions.


Value and Worth

  • Relational & ecosystem building work is valuable. There is value in collaborating rather than competing for funding, and in connecting up the separate strands of work across organisations and places. It’s valued by those funding the work, more so as more evidence of effectiveness and impact is gathered.
  • But is it sufficiently valued by researchers and seen to be a valuable career opportunity? Is it rewarded and supported by organisations? It’s not short-term work with quick rewards so can this put people off from doing it?
  • What are the best ways to highlight its value to policymakers? As one speaker said “evidence synthesis is the starting point for engagement” and one way to build relationships and impact. Bring attention to what is useful for others.

Sustaining partnerships

  • There’s a need to provide learning and development opportunities for those doing this work – partnership working skills, showing impact, working with conflict, mentoring across organisations and getting comfortable with adapting.
  • Adapt to what is already in a place and build on it, rather than starting afresh. Each place is different, so use that difference.
  • How do we gather and share the impact and outcomes to embed the practices and ways of working?


  • Evidence is useful as a starting point for connection. And then the hard work starts – bringing it to life and making changes happen in places require meaningful relationships and redistribution of power.
  • Power also impacts what is viewed as valuable evidence, who gathers and owns evidence, and who is paid to gather it.
  • Success factors – need to think more widely about what is good evidence and how to bring it to life. How can community research become more embedded? How can changing funding approaches change the perceived value of community evidence and stories?


  • Power dynamics affect relationships which often deepen inequalities communities.
  • Different partners and organisations have different and varying core values which can make collaboration tricky and time consuming.
  • Need to understand what works for who and why and in what contexts – individuals and communities are different (although there is lots of good practice about involving the less heard).
  • A tension – the need to embed the practices and approaches that work, and the need to keep trying new practices and approaches.
  • How can we understand what is valuable to others and how do we show the value and impact?
  • Finding the best ways to support people to work together – give them time, funding, rewards, impact that meets their values.


  • We understand the barriers and factors influencing effective interactions. Design and experiment with different ways to work and share bravely.
  • Share the work with funders to continue experimenting and embedding what works.
  • Gather and share the value of relational and collaborative ways of working – embracing agility, learning as well as outcomes, embedding as well as starting new work.
  • Design programmes and projects which enhance capabilities, tools and resources needed in communities for data ownership, protection and effective utilisation.

Ideas for what next

  • There’s enthusiasm to develop a national community of practice on relational knowledge exchange and community participation – a mini ecosystem?
  • Setting out what collaborative place leadership might look like. There is a need to come up with the key skills and behaviours that support collaborative work & use to plan learning and development support.
  • Developing useful and participatory forms of evaluation. In addition to evaluating outcomes, capturing process learning using a variety of methods and tools can support learning and adaptation during knowledge exchange work.

If you’d like to connect with the Centre for Urban Wellbeing, please feel free to contact us at urbanwellbeing@contacts.bham.ac.uk