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ANZSOG’s The Bridge live event explores how we can build relationships between academics and public sector practitioners

13 June 2024

News and media


The Bridge

Bridging the gap between academic researchers and public sector practitioners is a long-standing issue, with academics lacking incentives to work with public servants and practitioners lacking the time or knowledge to find and use academic research. 

An online event celebrating 100 issues of ANZSOG’s The Bridge research translation project, brought together an expert panel to discuss how to build relationships between the two sectors. 

To celebrate The Bridge’s 100th issue, Bridge editor Maria Katsonis facilitated the discussion on the topic ‘Academics are from Venus, public managers are from Mars’ with a panel of three experts: 

  • Professor Janine O’Flynn, Director of the Crawford School of Public Policy at ANU, 
  • Eleanor Williams, Managing Director of the Australian Centre for Evaluation, 
  • Simon Corden, former Commissioner at the Victorian Essential Services Commission, and former Chair of the ANZSOG-auspiced National Regulators Community of Practice (NRCoP) 

Professor O’Flynn began the conversation by saying that she was ‘a little bit perplexed’ by the idea that academics and practitioners operate in completely different worlds. 

“I’ve built my entire career as an academic being deeply engaged in discussions about what’s going on now, what do we think is coming in the future. At times, we collaborate quite effectively  – where we have had a very strong common purpose.” 

“Part of the friction, I think, comes when our colleagues in the public service often need and want  quick answers to complex problems that we can’t just run a project on the next day or where we’ve got part of the answer but not all of it.  

Mr Corden said that there there were public managers who reached out to academics, or who were linked into the academic, but there were more that did not. 

 “I think there are real challenges. If you talk to public servants, and many people I know who’ve become academics from public service, they are frustrated that this barrier still exists. 

“I think there are some areas of public policy where there’s really close links between the academic world and the public administration –  climate change, energy transition, public health during COVID-19 – and other areas where it’s much less closely linked.” 

“The main thing is the need to get people moving between the public sector and the academia. Having opportunities for academics to do one-year postings in the Department of Government or for public servants to be involved in academia for a while is really important in building those relationships” 

Ms Williams said that practitioners and academics had common ground in their interest in the same policy problems, even if they looked at them from different standpoints. 

“I feel like it’s less like we are from different planets and more like different regions, with different cultures and languages. So how do we navigate those cultural differences? Because we do have this shared desire to work more closely together.” 

“I have just come back from Scotland, a country of five million, where I spoke to both academics and policy makers who seem to work very closely together. When I commented on this, and said ‘you seem to work very closely between academia and public policy’, they all say ‘Oh, we’re a tiny country, there’s just five million of us’.  

“But I think you’d struggle to find a Victorian public servant who felt that way for example, even though their jurisdiction is not much bigger. So it’s clear that these aren’t impenetrable barriers, they can be navigated. We can jump over these hurdles – we just have to probably be quite active in doing it.  

“In Scotland you have a lot of academics who spent some time working in the public sector, and vice versa. So there’s a lot more movement that’s facilitated through secondments, placements and graduate roles. And it just seems there’s much more activity, but also some additional kind of bridges.” 

Building trust and publicising academic research

Ms Katsonis asked the panel how academics could play a bigger role in the work of government, suggesting that very public servants would think to call an academic when faced with an urgent policy problem. 

Professor O’Flynn said that the UK and USA had strong traditions of incorporating academic work into government, through ideas such as the UK’s ‘What Works Centres’ and she said that there needed to be an emphasis on instituional ways of resiolving the competing incentives of academics and practitioners. 

“But part of it is relational. You need to build relationships of trust, where people know that you can provide them with advice which is based on evidence. Part of the thing I think that we’ve developed here, and what Australian academics are very well known for, is that they work with governments of whatever stripe. They’re interested in evidence, they’re interested in policy development, and indeed the relationships here have been built up across a whole range of different governments. 

Ms Williams is doing research for a Ph.D and said that her surveys and interviews with policymakers had so far shown that for public servants the quality of pre-existing relationships with academics was vital. 

“When you work to that time pressure, if you have a trusted relationship with people who generate high-quality evidence, it’s much more likely that you will look at the more sophisticated kinds of evidence that can be generated at speed,” she said. 

“The question is: Do you have anything ready that is easily accessed and easily absorbed? That’s going to determine whether or not that evidence gets used.” 

A question from the audience asked how the fact that public servants were now in competition with ministerial staffers, think tanks, lobbyists and others as providers of advice to the public sector, should change how they worked with academics. 

Mr Corden said that more competition should drive quality and give public servants more incentives to broaden their advice. 

“It should drive public servants who have got to compete with the lobbyists, with the think tanks. That competition for quality should be pushing us as public servants to actually reach out to academics.” 

Professor O’Flynn said that academics needed to reach a range of different audiences for their work, but defended the role of academic journals and publishing. 

“When academics are writing into journals, for the most part, they’re not writing to the general public.  They’re engaged in a very long conversation with each other about the slow sort of evolution of knowledge. You’re looking back through history about what the debates, arguments and evidence have been over a very long period of time, and you’re writing just another piece to add to that knowledge.” 

“I don’t want people to come out of a discussion like this saying there’s no worth in that work, and that they’re writing this esoteric, crazy stuff that no one can access or read.” 

“But I think, there are a whole range of different audiences that you need to get that information out to through conversations with our academic colleagues in journals, in the classroom with our students, and then more broadly into media, into government, into community and private sector organisations. There are very different channels for the research that we do.” 

Another question from the audience asked about the role of AI and the prospect of it making research more accessible, which was met with qualified optimism by the panel. 

Ms Williams said the Australian Centre for Evaluation was involved in evaluating a pilot around the use of AI within the organisation. 

“I think it offers huge opportunities in research translation, but the importance of academics continuing to focus on long-form knowledge production is absolutely essential to AI being a helpful thing. If we’re not producing good, comprehensive, complete knowledge, AI can only do a job of synthesising what’s not complete, so it’s absolutely essential that we continue that task as well,” she said. 

“AI can take away this work that’s traditionally been done by research assistants, who’ve just had to trawl through articles and do the work of determining, does this meet the standards of evidence that we expect? This is hugely expensive and hugely time-consuming, but AI would be fantastic at these sorts of tasks off assessing and summarising existing work. 

“But we need to use that saving around synthesis to invest more into the generation of high-quality evidence if we’re going to achieve this wonderful utopia of evidence-based, or evidence-informed policy in the future.” 

ANZSOG’s Dean and CEO Professor Caron Beaton-Wells introduced the panel, saying that the Bridge was a highly successful example of research translation.  

She said that ANZSOG was proud of the success of The Bridge, which had built up a subscriber base of over 15,000 people to its fortnightly emails and had seen 80,000 views of the Bridge’s Research Briefs which summarise academic research.  

For more information on the Bridge, including the full list of Research Briefs and back issue, including information how to subscribe for free, visit The Bridge page on the ANZSOG website.