Interview: PhD students explain what it’s like working in the OIT

We’re Rosa and Sophia, PhD students from Cambridge University, currently working in the Open Innovation Team (OIT). OIT is a new unit based in the Cabinet Office that works to deepen collaboration between officials and academics.

We joined OIT as interns in early September 2017 and are now nearing the end of our six-month placement here at 1 Horse Guards Road. Taking a moment to reflect on our work and experiences here, we had a Q&A session. With ourselves. Enjoy!

What is your PhD research on?

Rosa: My research looks at how political narratives about public attitudes to taxation changed in Britain in the second half of the twentieth century. There was a growing media and political narrative from the late 1950s/60s, culminating in the 1992 tax bombshell election, that people were less willing to pay taxes.

The survey evidence we have suggests that actually attitudes to tax have been relatively constant and the number of people who say that they want lower taxes if it means lower spending has been consistently below 10%, and usually closer to 5%, since the early-80s.

My research investigates this mismatch between the public narrative and what actually seems to be happening in public attitudes.

Sophia: My research looks at the periodic emergence of localism and decentralisation in policy, from the 1960s to today. In particular, looking at the political context and pressures for reforming spatial governance and evaluating the implications.

What have you been working on with OIT?

Rosa: Most of my time at OIT has been spent on a project supporting the Treasury to engage with academics around competition policy. In addition to that I have also been working on the scale-up plans for OIT’s second phase when our pilot period ends in September 2018.

OIT was started as a 2-year pilot in 2016 so part of the work of the last 6 months has been working out what the team will look like next year and how it will be funded. Seeing the process of designing the scale-up strategy and then getting approval to implement it from beginning to (almost) end has been really interesting.

Sophia: My main project has been working across Cabinet Office and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to support the Analysis and Data Directorate on scoping out possible policy options and options for academic engagement in relation to residential housing segregation.

Working with both analysts and policy advisors (including the social housing green paper team) has given me an insight into the intricacies of policy creation. Further, observing internally the impact of the ministerial reshuffle in early January and the name change of the department was certainly an interesting experience.

Have you enjoyed working with OIT?

Rosa: I’ve really enjoyed it. The team has a great culture and because it is so small you get to do interesting work straight away and have a real impact on the projects you’re working on. We’re always working on lots of different projects so the day-to-day work is very varied, which is a nice change after doing a PhD!

It’s also been great to get a real idea of what working in the Civil Service is like and OIT is great for that because we work with teams across different departments so you get a feel for the variety of work that’s going on.

Sophia: Absolutely. I didn’t quite know what to expect when I started and it took some time learning the ropes, but it has been a great place to work – I’ve developed friendships and made contacts here, and have found civil servants in general to be highly dedicated and empathetic people. My colleagues here are great to work with and have definitely inspired me with regards to future career options.

The working environment is highly rewarding and fast-paced: in OIT, members of the team are given the freedom to take initiative and suggest new projects. There is great variety in projects and always lots of interesting people to meet from both Whitehall and academia.

In addition, when I started the internship, my PhD research had reached a point where it had become rather complicated and theoretical, so getting a break to experience the real world of policy making in government has been very useful and eye-opening.

Finally – it deserves to be said – working in the heart of Westminster, looking over Parliament, Big Ben, and St. James’s Park, feels pretty special.

Do you think it will have an impact on your research?

Rosa: I think it’ll definitely have an impact on my work – having a deeper understanding of how the Civil Service operates and the institutional dynamics of policy making will change how I read government documents in the archives. From that perspective it’s been incredibly useful – it’s almost impossible to get the kind of knowledge you get from working somewhere in another way.

Sophia: The experience of working in government, producing briefing notes, organising events, and communicating my ideas in meetings has definitely allowed me to develop my communication skills. I’ve also deepened my understanding of the realities of policy making in central government, which has been particularly useful, given the emphasis on policy and reform in my research.

Further, given the role of the team in engaging with academics, I’ve also had an opportunity to critically reflect on the ways academics engage (or sometimes fail to engage) with officials, which has given me some important takeaways for my own research and the way I think about policy impact.

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