If Local Governments Could Get Research on [Blank], What Would They Want — A Workshop Summary

MetroLab Network
6 min readAug 21, 2023

This is part one of a MetroLab series featuring the current state of civic research produced by universities, and how it aligns with the research needs and knowledge gaps of local governments.

MetroLab’s north star is to change forever the relationship between local government and university institutions to address our greatest problems with catalytic impact and innovation. And to do this, MetroLab is ramping up efforts to better understand a few things, starting with the current dynamics of this relationship: 1) what is working well; 2) what needs to change; and 3) what myths do we need to bust. This understanding is critical to inform our second step: what processes and interventions can address these needs such that these two critical institutions can work together in a smooth, and efficient way. MetroLab’s theory of change lies squarely in this work. We believe that partnerships between local governments and universities will proliferate innovation and impact in our communities.

On July 27th, 2023, MetroLab hosted a workshop at our 2023 Annual Summit. The purpose of this workshop was threefold:

  1. Understand the current partnership and relationship dynamics between local governments and universities.
  2. Begin to proactively understand the research needs and knowledge gaps of cities and counties.
  3. Host a conversation on research output, i.e. what is the best way to ensure civic research can be actionable and implemented.

We hosted approximately 50 people. Here’s what happened.

We divided the room in half. One half of the room included staff or stakeholders directly affiliated with local governments. The other half were staff, faculty, or others directly affiliated with universities. We asked the room several questions, all of which were answered anonymously. Our findings are below.

Kate Burns, MetroLab Executive Director, leads the workshop on June 27, 2023 in Portland, OR.

Question One: What is one word you think of when you hear (for the local government side of the room) “research” — or — (for the university side of the room) “public policy”?

The local government audience overwhelmingly used the word “data” when thinking of research. Some other answers included “publications,” “academic,” and “underutilized.” The university audience largely pointed to two things: “process” and “implementation.”

Question Two: In five words or less, how do you know who to work with on the other side?

One key element of forging partnerships is quite simple, where do you start? How do relationships form? MetroLab’s very existence stems from the need to bring people together in this space to scale and learn from one another, all starting with relationships.

The majority of the answers from both sides of the room were similar and in this order: 1) asking my colleagues; 2) relying on personal connections or people who I have worked with before; 3) peer networks.

Our key takeaway here: networks are extremely valuable to create new connections and to inspire fresh ideas that can scale. Too often relationships and partnerships work in insular circles. It’s imperative to expand those circles for the sake of inclusivity and expansion of knowledge.

Question Three: what is a myth you want to bust to the other side?

The answers were unique and compelling. We’ll list them in full (very similar answers have been reflected as one answer). Reminder: these answers reflect WRONG assumptions.

Question four had specific questions to each audience relating to prioritizing research projects.

Local government audience: how would you prioritize a research topic?

Three things came to the top:

  1. Does it fit the mayor’s / city leadership’s priorities?
  2. What are our most pressing needs?
  3. What is the potential impact?

Other considerations included aligning with community engagement/interest and existing, adopted plans (long term plans, neighborhood planning, etc).

“Compare the potential impact of the topic with the gap in our own skills or ability to answer or research that question.”

University audience: how can local government frame a problem to be an appropriate research question?

There was consensus that researchers prefer to simply be given a problem, not necessarily a solution statement or research question per se. What differed among answers was how much detail or flexibility should be conveyed. We can see this in the following submissions:

  1. Local scope and detail is fine, but needs potential for generalizability

2. Enough detail that it is clear what the outcome may be

3. “Question areas” that give flexibility but are more specific than a headline

Some preferences conflict with previous answers above, such as a desire to shape the scope around “what is an important but not urgent challenge that research could help answer” (see answers above on local governments wanting research around pressing needs).

Question five also had specific questions for each audience. Local government audience: if you could get research on [blank], what would you want? University audience: what research do you think local governments need?

Ultimately, we noticed two major differences in the responses from both sides. The first difference is level of specificity. The local government audience had answers that were 1) structured similarly to how city departments are structured; and 2) specific in either asking about a particular problem and/or recommended interventions. Most of the answers from this audience started with the word “what” followed by [is the answer/problem/data I can get].

The university audience responded with local government research needs at a higher level, believing the needs to be things such as developing decision making platforms, understanding trust at large between residents and government, and evaluating past policy decisions. Indeed, most of the responses were process focused, beginning with the word “how.”

Workshop participants listening to a presentation by Kate Burns, Executive Director at MetroLab Network

As we mentioned, one of our key goals from this workshop was to begin to proactively understand the research needs and knowledge gaps of local governments. Below, we have summarized the research needs identified by participants by grouping these answers (and their examples) into five key categories.

  1. Emerging technologies: Socio-technical systems; Post quantum cryptography; Self energizing sensors
  2. Transportation and Infrastructure: Measuring the impacts of specific transportation and land use changes; Benefits (including cost-benefit) of natural infrastructure v. gray infrastructure
  3. Community engagement: The needs of the community, from the community members; Community happiness + engagement; How different communities want to engage with local government through data and technology
  4. Homelessness and displacement: What are the most effective methods of delivering services; Resident demographic data; Gentrification and displacement — what interventions match to particular community characteristics and gentrification stages; Generational poverty and food insecurity, and
  5. Service Delivery: Socio economic barriers to access and adoption of technology, the internet, etc; Identifying/determining KPIs for assessing project and program success; Success and failures of chief innovation officer positions and innovation offices in government

Next Steps

This workshop was just the beginning in understanding the current dynamics of research and how it interacts with local government. MetroLab will continue to host these workshops, and continuously learn (and publish) about the research needs of local governments. We wish to thank everyone for participating in this fruitful workshop; thank you for your candor and trust.

In part two of this series, we will discuss this issue beyond the confines of this workshop: what are the high level hurdles of partnership, how can we further understand active research needs, and what can we do to answer them.

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MetroLab Network

35+ city-university pairs bringing data, analytics & innovation to city gov’t thru research, development & deployment. Launched at #WHSmartCities 2015