A blog entry by Dr Kelly Davidge,
Sustainable Care Programme Manager
I am the Programme Manager for the Sustainable Care Programme (SCP). My first day triggered the start of 3.5 years of work with nine separate projects, a £2.5 million budget, over 40 national and international academic, policy and practice partners, and a multidisciplinary and international programme team. It was a little overwhelming, but I had experience of running smaller projects and the support of a whole university machine behind me. This blog details my ‘top tips’ for running a large research programme:
Dr Kelly Davidge
Get the budget in order
The SCP has a large, complicated budget covering staffing, impact activities, events, fieldwork, transcription, conference attendance, etc. One of my first activities was to understand the budget:
- How much money is there for each activity?
- Are there any restrictions; is any money ring-fenced for certain activities?
- When does each spend happen? Are the costs spread out over the whole lifetime of the programme, or do they happen in predictable chunks?
- Are there any reporting mechanisms back to the funder?
Set up a system as soon as you can – and stick to it. For non-staff costs, we number each expenditure and run a master spreadsheet, with smaller ones for other discrete costs, such as specific events and fieldwork. Costs are continually monitored, and queries answered quickly. I have a recurring task in my diary to check and update the budget every two weeks, and I spend a day each quarter checking that everything tallies with figures obtained from Finance to ensure we’ve captured every spend.
Meet key people in contracts, finance and HR
Some elements of the budget must be monitored and operationalised by our Faculty Finance team, such as staff salaries and overheads. I met with them during the first month for a thorough handover and have kept in frequent contact. The same is true for HR and our contracts team – we recruited researchers and set up participation and collaboration agreements with funded and non-funded partners; for this, I needed the support of colleagues in central services. Our Faculty research support team were also key during the set-up phase (Where’s this? How do I do that? Who is this person?) and throughout the whole programme. It’s so important to understand what you can and can’t do, and who is there to help you.
Win the trust of the whole team
To make effective decisions and support the Principal Investigator and programme, you first need to earn their trust. This might mean doing things in a way you normally wouldn’t; that’s OK – you can re-visit later. Introduce yourself to everyone, in person if possible. Build relationships with the whole team, from Professor to PhD student. Be useful – if you don’t know the answer, know where to find it or who to ask. Keep confidentiality and reputations in mind. If you have the trust of the team, it becomes easy to manage: they come to you early with issues; they (mostly) answer emails (mostly) on time; and lunchtime during team meetings are much more pleasant! (Speaking of lunch – always, always order the good sandwiches.)
Build a robust communications strategy
I was advised to focus on our communication strategy early on, and time spent here has really paid off. With our Faculty Research Communications team, we looked at different stakeholders in the programme, both internal (such as Co-Investigators) and external (such as our funders, the ESRC, and policymakers) and decided how we were going to communicate with them. We planned for face-to-face meetings, newsletters, Tweets, policy briefing documents. We commissioned a website and the SCP administrator, Dan Williamson, quickly learnt how to maintain and it and manage our social media channels. We revisit the strategy every now and again, and often add new channels of communication (podcasts and videos, for example).
Learn as much as you can, but remember – you’re not the expert
One of my favourite jobs is helping with the outputs we produce, such as policy briefs, when I can read about the research we are doing and present it in a suitable way. My interest in the subject has helped – I understand the language used and can support dissemination activities; I can be a lay person and flag up if anything comes out a little too “academic” when it shouldn’t; I can support the research as I understand how it’s done; and I understand enough about what we do to talk confidently about it to our stakeholders.
Use technology – with guidelines
Our team is mostly UK-based, with Canadian colleagues at the University of Alberta and international partners in 18 countries. We planned to meet face-to-face as much as possible, allowing important discussions, in large and small groups, that would have been difficult remotely. We have always used remote conferencing facilities to connect with geographically distant colleagues, and this experience had helped us during the Covid-19 crisis to develop guidelines for participating in regular remote meetings. In April, we successfully held a two-day whole team meeting, plus leadership group and advisory board sessions, and have started holding online seminars (some with an international audience). Our previous experience really helped us to respond quickly to the enforced working from home schedule from March 2020.
I have thoroughly enjoyed being a part of the SCP team. Although some of our research and impact activities will inevitably be delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is as relevant – even more so – than it ever was. I look forward to the next 12 months, and beyond.