Commercialisation case study: providing policy evaluation with CECAN Ltd - ESRC

Designing public policies that can effectively address society’s problems is challenging. Many factors can affect the outcome of a policy, making it difficult to determine whether the policy was successful. For example, changes in the economy, social norms and technology can all impact the effectiveness of a policy.

​CECAN ​​Ltd was formed in 2018 and provides consultancy and training for innovative policy evaluation approaches and methods to support decision-makers. Initially developed in policy areas such as food, energy, water and the environment, its approaches are relevant wherever complexity is present and systems thinking is required.

Professor Nigel Gilbert

Professor Nigel Gilbert, CECAN Ltd Director and Professor of Sociology at the University of Surrey

CECAN Ltd is the commercial arm of the Centre for the Evaluation of Complexity Across the Nexus (CECAN), based at the University of Surrey. Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), ​the ​CECAN centre has been improving and developing the practice of policy evaluation since 2016.

The centre brings together a coalition of academic researchers​​ and senior practitioners led by Professor Nigel Gilbert, a computational social scientist with a background in engineering.

The term ‘nexus’ in policy evaluation refers to the connection or relationship between different policy areas, factors or variables. By examining the nexus, policymakers and evaluators can better understand policies’ potential impacts and effectiveness.

Providing a unique service for policymakers

Policy planning and evaluation are challenging when social and environmental problems are intertwined. Effective policy planning can directly affect the community and the environment.

For example, designing and evaluating a policy on the risk of flooding needs close liaison with experts, local authorities and citizens on issues such as:

  • coastal erosion
  • drainage
  • farming
  • housing
  • transport

The policy must be flexible and robust across these areas and its evaluation must be adapted to suit clients’ needs.

Policymakers and evaluators have long faced these challenges, and to help ensure robust policymaking the services that CECAN Ltd provides include:

  • access to an innovative systems mapping method called Participatory Systems Mapping (PSM), via sessions led by CECAN staff (PSM is a modelling methodology in which a workshop group can collaboratively develop a simple causal map of an issue using whiteboard or pen and paper)
  • providing advice on ​​theory-based and developmental evaluation (theory-based evaluation ​​focuses on understanding and assessing the underlying theories and assumptions behind a programme or intervention, while developmental evaluation is an approach for complex and dynamic situations where traditional evaluation methods may not be sufficient)
  • conducting ​​agent-based modelling to explore the impact of various policy interventions on complex systems (agent-based modelling is a computational modelling technique used to simulate the behaviour and interactions of individual agents or groups within a system)
  • developing frameworks to help clients evaluate the impact of their policies and interventions
  • providing training to help clients build their own evaluation and decision-support capabilities

Other organisations do offer evaluation and decision support. However, CECAN Ltd’s Participatory Systems Mapping model, interdisciplinary approach, innovative methods and access to cutting-edge research and expertise provide additional services to customers.

The journey to commercialisation

CECAN Ltd was set up in response to demand within government and from evaluation practitioners. They required an approach and expertise that could adequately address the challenges posed in an increasingly complex policy landscape.

The company has provided opportunities for researchers to develop their careers in a business context. It has created a way for CECAN to respond to government ‘Invitations To Tender’ (ITTs) more quickly and efficiently than if bidding through a university.

Professor Gilbert, CECAN Ltd Director and Professor of Sociology at the University of Surrey, said:

We established CECAN Ltd to provide a commercial service to government departments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and private sector organisations interested in accessing the expertise and research capabilities of the CECAN network.

We can quickly respond to provide decision support services informed by the latest research and evidence.

Our flexibility allows us to tailor our services to the needs of each client, ensuring that we provide relevant and effective advice.

Creating a business model

The team commercialising CECAN decided that its services lent themselves well to a fee-for-service business model, where clients pay for the specific services they require.

Professor Gilbert also developed a free online app supporting PSM, called the Participatory System Mapper (PRSM). While the participatory systems maps can be built using a whiteboard or simple pen and paper materials on a large table, PRSM specifically enables groups to draw digital system maps collaboratively during online meetings or workshops.

The PRSM software is available for free and is open source. CECAN Ltd decided it was better to charge for training and consultancy, rather than deal with complicated and expensive subscription models for the software.

The key challenges

Despite CECAN already being a well-known name in government circles, one of the critical challenges faced by CECAN Ltd in its journey to commercialisation was establishing its reputation in the market and developing a solid network of clients.

To overcome this challenge, CECAN Ltd adopted a proactive marketing strategy focused on building relationships with potential clients and showcasing its expertise.

Professor Gilbert said:

Another challenge was to develop a sustainable business model that could support the delivery of high-quality evaluation and decision-support services.

To address this challenge, we worked closely with clients to understand their needs and develop tailored solutions that met their requirements while generating revenue for the business.

We also focused on building a strong team of experts who could deliver high-quality client services.

Successful scale-up

Since it was founded CECAN Ltd has grown steadily. It now has an annual turnover of about £250,000, a small team of employed staff, and trusted associates who work regularly for the company.

Contracts range from small commissions lasting a few weeks to larger-scale projects spanning several years. Any surplus is ploughed back into the company (it does not pay dividends) or is used to support policy evaluation research.

CECAN Ltd often collaborates in consortia with other consultancies to provide the specific blend of expertise the client requires.

While CECAN originally focused mainly on public policies linked to the environment, it is expanding its interests. It now works with a much wider range of clients and topics where its expertise in system mapping, complex evaluation and modelling is in demand.

While CECAN Ltd itself has not received external funding, CECAN received three grants from ESRC totalling £3.9 million.

Benefitting the UK taxpayer

CECAN Ltd now employs three salaried staff, with plans to expand where possible. The company also pays UK corporation tax and value added tax (VAT), meaning the grant funding received is now being returned to the public purse via tax paid.

CECAN Ltd further benefits the UK taxpayer in several ways, outlined below.

Improved policy design

By evaluating policies, programmes​​ and interventions, CECAN Ltd can help improve the design of policies to make it more likely that they will be effective, efficient​​ and achieve their intended outcomes. This can save taxpayer money by reducing waste and providing resources that are used more effectively.

Better use of evidence

CECAN Ltd specialises in using evidence-based methods to evaluate policies and programmes. By using rigorous and objective evaluation methods, CECAN Ltd can help ensure that taxpayers’ money is spent on approaches and programmes that have been proven to work.

Improved outcomes

By evaluating policies and programmes, CECAN Ltd can help identify areas where improvements can be made to achieve better results. This can lead to better public services, better quality of life for citizens, and a better return on investment for taxpayers.

Last updated: 14 September 2023

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