In a recent article for Chatham House, Philip Blond of ResPublica suggested that British academics rarely seem to make an impact on public policy. While the article met with a mixed reception, it does raises the question of whether academics who think about the social sector are having an impact on  policy in this area.

From my experience, they aren’t. It’s not even clear that many people know what they are thinking. This is a real shame because academics can draw on perhaps a unique combination of expertise, resources, credibility, independence and freedom of expression - while think-tanks, membership bodies, officials, Ministers, press and individual citizens each fall short of this full house.

So what are social sector academics up to?

Alex Nicholls, from the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford University, has been writing about something called Zweckrationale (a sort of deterministic, inputs > outputs > outcomes, McKinsey-esque, ‘what works’ view of the world) versus a Wertrationale approach (more concerned with values, beliefs and ethos). Alex explores how the social investment market may in future be dominated by each of these mind-sets, or a combination.

Jeremy Kendall from the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research at Kent University, has been reviewing the last Government’s policies and Futurebuilders in particular. Jeremy describes ways that the state thinks about the contribution of the social sector – in being efficient, in being expert or for its value in reaching across conventional boundaries. Jeremy argues that the Government has often valued the social sector’s role in respect of the first two – in the design and delivery of public services - but not so much in terms of its role in stitching society together.

Fergus Lyon, the social enterprise lead from the Third Sector Research Centre, has recently written about the social sector, innovation and something called institutional isomorphism. Fergus concludes that a dependence on government for resources has resulted in the sector increasingly adopting the mind-set of its patron, and in particular its interest in being business-like and innovative.

So crudely, it seems that three of our leading social sector academics are exploring how efficient commercial delivery of what government wants may be increasingly dominating the values that can define the sector.

What does this mean for policy?

It could mean that while academics are failing to have much of an impact in shaping government policy, government policy is having a great deal of impact in shaping the sector. In my mind, this makes it all the more crucial that we find ways to develop our own independent, credible, well-resourced and uncompromising policy thinking, based on those values which we don’t want to lose. A closer relationship with academics might be a good place to start.