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Civil Service

More collaboration for more innovation in government

Head and shoulders of Jeremy Heywood
Sir Jeremy Heywood

I am sometimes a little frustrated that we don’t make better use of academics. The UK is blessed with some of the best universities in the world: Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial are ranked in the top 10 and we have more than 30 in the top 200. We clearly have an immense pool of academic talent on our doorstep and, while there are many excellent examples of collaboration, it often feels like we could be doing more.

That’s why I’ve been pleased to see colleagues taking the initiative to set up the Cabinet Office’s Open Innovation Team, a new unit dedicated to helping departments generate analysis and ideas by deepening collaboration with academics.   

Supported by Research Councils UK and sponsored by four leading universities – Bath, Lancaster, Southampton and Warwick – the Open Innovation Team has now been up and running for about 18 months and has made valuable policy contributions in a number of areas.

For example, they’ve helped the Department for Health and Social Care develop ideas for the Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health Provision Green Paper, and set up a Digital Government Partnership that’s getting more academics involved in our huge digital transformation agenda.

Digital has so far been the Open Innovation Team’s biggest strand of work. Projects under way or under discussion in a variety of promising areas include distributed ledger technology, data scraping, automation, and digital ethics. They’re even helping businesses get involved, collaborating with HM Treasury and the Government Digital Service to work up the Chancellor’s recent GovTech Catalyst announcement.  

Blackboard with 'Innovation' thought bubble
Licence: Creative Commons Attribution Missy Schmidt

We should expect to see much more of the Open Innovation Team. They already have plans to work with colleagues on numerous other policy areas, including competition, labour market reform, community integration, environment and education. They also intend to scale up the team later this year by inviting universities to sponsor them for another two or three years.

The challenge of deepening our collaboration with academia, and the related task of ensuring that policy remains evidence-led, obviously can’t be solved by a single small team in the Cabinet Office. However, I’m pleased to see colleagues experimenting with new ways of partnering with academics, and delighted that it seems to be having a positive effect.

There’s already a long queue for support from the Open Innovation Team, but I’d encourage any teams who think they might benefit from their help to get in touch by: email at, or via Twitter @openinnovteam.

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  1. Comment by Charlotte Smith posted on

    Whilst any improvements to the operation of the civil service must of course be welcomed, would it not also be beneficial to also listen to staff on the "workshop floor" ? People who have been in the job for years and can offer invaluable advice, recommendations to improve things even further still. How about setting up forums for all colleagues to share and discuss ideas that can be fed back to the top. After all I think it would be fair to say that the greatest asset of any organisation are its employees! And might be worth remembering there is a wealth of academic talent within the workforce as well.