Engaging closely (from afar) with policymakers during the pandemic

Posted on: 13 October 2020 by Andrew McClelland in Blog

Heseltine Institute Research Associate, Andrew McClelland, reflects upon his experience since March 2020 coordinating and editing the COVID-19 Policy Briefs series and offers some insights into the potential for transformative change emerging from the crisis.

Much has happened over the past 10 days to confirm that we are in another phase of the coronavirus pandemic. From 00:01 on Saturday 3rd October additional “local restrictions” were introduced by central Government to Merseyside, Halton and Warrington aimed at halting the spread of infection. On Monday 5th, in direct response to the new measures, the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority (LCRCA) announced a £40 million emergency fund to aid the hospitality and leisure industry, a major source of employment severely impacted by business closures and loss of trade in the face of COVID-19. These policy responses – not to mention the three-tiered alert levels coming into effect tomorrow – are indicative of the complex interplay between public health and economic concerns, the national and local levels of decision-making, and the short and longer term implications of government supports for lives and livelihoods.

Seven months ago, an urgency to respond to the profound local challenges arising from this global crisis motivated the creation of the Heseltine Institute’s COVID-19 Policy Briefs series, in collaboration with our colleagues in the LCRCA. Acutely aware of the uncertainties and regional socio-economic vulnerabilities that would likely be exacerbated, the series was designed to complement and add value to the work of civic leaders and policymakers, disseminating tailored knowledge, best practices and translational research. Its principal objectives remain twofold:

  • To mitigate locally the present coronavirus health crisis and its social, economic, and environmental aftershocks;
  • To think anew about how we might “Build Back Better” so as to create a structurally more resilient Liverpool City Region.

To date, 27 policy briefings have been published online. In a period marked by physical distancing and remote working, Twitter data provides a valuable indicator of the extent of the series’ external reach and visibility. Analysis of this data indicates that engagement with the Institute’s tweets are over five times higher than during the equivalent period last year, driven largely by the briefing launch threads. While accessibility in terms of their format and open access nature are important, other characteristics that underpin the intent and appeal of the series deserve reflection.

A pluralistic and collaborative approach was adopted from the outset, with the series accommodative of a diversity of voices, subjects, and policy challenges in responding to the pandemic. It is heartening that the strategy pursued accords with the five principles for COVID-19 recovery policymaking elaborated by The British Academy. These principles include using and integrating a wide range of knowledge, particularly from the humanities and social sciences; responsiveness to and understanding of local and historical contexts; and giving due consideration to time and scale in policymaking. Anchoring the series within the Liverpool City Region and drawing upon interdisciplinary expertise from across the university and beyond, as well as communities of policy and practice, has enabled a sustained coherence around these principles.

Critically, the fifth principle speaks to a key orientation of the briefings: “addressing local inequalities and promoting inclusivity, embedding sustainability, and prioritising education and skills” (Morgan Jones, Abrams & Lahiri, 2020, p.170). We know of the pandemic’s uneven impacts on vulnerable communities. It did not create these disparities but has intensified and underlined the place-based entanglements of race, gender and class with multiple risk factors contributing to higher coronavirus death rates and exposure to the economic fallout – e.g. predominance of women and BAME staff among frontline workers; lack of welfare protections; over-crowded housing; air pollution levels; and poor access to healthy food, to name but a few. As an editorial in The Lancet argues, the “social origins” and “patterns of inequality deeply embedded in our societies” ensures that “a purely biomedical solution to COVID-19 will fail” (Horton, 2020, p.874).

There is widespread recognition that things cannot return to the “old normal” after coronavirus. However, for building back better to be more than an aspirational wish-list or mere rhetorical device appropriated from the United Nations, briefing authors have sought to flesh out both structuring principles and concrete policy actions that can catalyse the sort of radical transformation required. Thus, in one of the latest briefings, Dr Kerry Traynor explores the “housing disease” and the correlation between housing and health, setting out how community-led housing can form part of a resilient response to the pandemic. While Liverpool has a strong tradition of innovative housing initiatives, an array of policy measures is needed at the national and regional/local levels to incentivise a broader range of housing providers and scale-up the provision of affordable homes. This represents but one policy arena where the magnitude of change required is significant.

During lockdown in the spring, several briefing authors talked optimistically of a widening of the “Overton window”, referring to the spectrum of policy options amenable to the public at any point in time. Just how “open” the window is remains open to debate. Governments around the world of all political hues, of course, have provided wide-ranging financial supports to businesses and households. The present moment has also generated an opportunity space for progressive thinking about the value of the foundational economy, a four day working week and Universal Basic Income, among other policy proposals – with public opinion receptive to the latter (Nettle, 2020). The Liverpool City Region’s economic recovery plan published in July recognises that “Prosperity across the City Region is weakened by inequality” (LCRCA, 2020, p.17), and is permeated with a reforming purpose. These examples suggest that the time is ripe for change.

On the other hand, the devolution and “levelling up” agendas have stalled, potentially curtailing (and perhaps even reversing) the decentralisation of the sort of powers and policy levers demanded by political leaders in the north of England. The pandemic has also laid bare many deficiencies in the UK’s data ecosystem, whether concerning the timely availability of reliable information for public health officials at a local level, or the desirability of adopting alternative indicators of economic success centred on human wellbeing rather than growth. For Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, whether a key policy lesson in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis has been properly learnt will only be determined as the present crisis eases: putting in place “a smart economic strategy for infrastructure investment, education, economic governance, tax reform and more” (Johnson, 2020). Meanwhile, the prospects of a “no-deal” Brexit loom large.

The policy briefing series cannot comprehensively address the full complexity of these intersecting challenges. Rather, it reflects the value and importance of time-critical knowledge exchange and mobilising epistemic communities towards common objectives, including in distilling evidence of what works in other places and policies readily (or not) transferable to the local context. For instance, "strong leadership, with clear messaging, and building a sense of unity" amongst the "Team of 5 Million", are vital elements within New Zealand’s highly effective response to COVID-19 (Exeter, Paynter, & Bullen, 2020, p.2). In light of recent UK Government announcements impacting on the Liverpool City Region, this successful national strategy elsewhere is a highly pertinent case in point from which much learning can be derived.

A long winter is anticipated. The work of the policy briefs series will continue to enhance the capacity of civic leaders and the policy community in the Liverpool City Region in their collaborative response to the coronavirus crisis as it unfolds at the global, national and local levels. There is a continued need and appetite among prospective authors to apply their expertise to addressing the intersecting public policy challenges we currently face, not least for horizon scanning and re-imagining an inclusive and resilient recovery. Fresh voices from postgraduate and early career researchers are also joining the conversation through a complementary podcast series. The cross-university and city-facing credentials of the Heseltine Institute have enabled closer working relationships to be forged with policymakers during these difficult times. Realising transformative change in emerging from the pandemic depends upon such collaborative reflection and action.


Exeter, Daniel, Janine Paynter, & Chris Bullen. 2020. Going Hard and Going Early in New Zealand: The “Team of 5 Million” Unites Against COVID-19. Policy Briefing 024. Liverpool, UK: Heseltine Institute for Public Policy, Practice and Place, University of Liverpool.

Horton, Richard. 2020. “Offline: COVID-19 is not a pandemic.” The Lancet 396(10255): 874.

Johnson, Paul. 2020. “Sunak has bought himself time, but his big test will come as crisis eases.” Institute for Fiscal Studies website, September 28, 2020. Available at: www.ifs.org.uk/publications/15046.

Morgan Jones, Molly, Dominic Abrams, & Aditi Lahiri. 2020. “Shape the Future: how the social sciences, humanities and the arts can SHAPE a positive, post-pandemic future for peoples, economies and environments.” Journal of the British Academy 8: 167-266.

Liverpool City Region Combined Authority [LCRCA]. 2020. Building Back Better. Our Economic Recovery Plan: For a globally competitive, environmentally responsible and socially inclusive Liverpool City Region. Liverpool, UK: LCRCA.

Nettle, Daniel. 2020. “Why has the pandemic increased support for Universal Basic Income?” LSE British Politics and Policy blog, June 22, 2020. Available at: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/covid19-support-ubi.

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