PhD student Ben Gittins discusses his Cabinet Office internship

HCRI student Ben is in the final year of his PhD, which examines the ways aid organisations are operating in insecure environments, focusing particularly on remote forms of humanitarianism in Syria. He took some time out in Autumn 2019 to intern with the Cabinet Office’s Open Innovation Team.

Can you tell us about the purpose of the Open Innovation Team (OIT)?

The OIT was established to fill a gap in government and policy building. It uses academic expertise to support teams across the Civil Service. Where academic insight may be useful, but a certain team doesn’t have the capacity or time needed to research a topic, that’s where the OIT and its staff come in handy.

What were you involved in during your internship?

The work was client-focused. We were sent requests from officials across the Cabinet Office and other departments to research a variety of projects, and my role was to work with officials to see if we could provide academic insight on their work. We would create a scoping document for each project after some initial research, which included identifying key academics and/or publications that were relevant, and then present this back to our clients within Whitehall.

In addition to the scoping work, I was also involved with organising OIT workshops, co-writing documents with policy-makers, and writing outputs that drew together the expertise I’d sought: the breadth of projects we researched varied from obesity to terrorism, to Brexit.

How did the skills you have as a PhD student come in use?

Despite these projects having little relevance to my PhD topic, I was able to use skills I have developed throughout my studies to be successful in the role, like being able to collate large amounts of research across many different topics. In particular, I have been able to draw upon my critical reflection skills to effectively evaluate, analyse and summarise research for our clients.

How has that placement contributed to your studies moving forward?

The pace and demands of having to collaborate with others on academic research, that I had no prior knowledge of, was a valuable experience and has shaped the way I examine literature for my PhD. During this placement, I was required to write in an engaging and clear manner to ensure the research findings were easily digestible. Learning to write in this way has made me rethink how I explain my own research and present my findings to different audiences. After completing my studies this year, I’m interested in returning to the Civil Service and using my research skills to influence policies affecting humanitarian and development issues.

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