Getting started with public engagement

Michael Noble is a PhD researcher based at the University of Nottingham. Since 2014 he has been the project co-ordinator at the Centre for Hidden Histories.


This post is based on January’s FWW network workshop, which took place at the University of Nottingham, and which had as its theme, Public Engagement in Research. It is a timely topic, given the launch of the FWW Network Collaborative Research Grant Scheme, but also a broad one. Any blog post that attempted to cover every aspect of academic public engagement would be doomed to failure. With that in mind, I intend to break it down into sub-topics. Later posts will address subjects such as developing a co-production project, navigating university administration systems and avoiding the ‘exploitation of goodwill’. If there are any other aspects of academic public engagement that you would like to see on this blog, please leave a note in the comments below or contact me on Twitter.

For now, I will concentrate on the fundamentals of public engagement; why is it important and how a researcher might go about establishing productive relationships with non-university partners.

With a particular focus on co-production, this first post is aimed at giving readers an insight into some of the methods for making this sort of collaboration a success. It is based on my experiences of brokering and managing university-community collaborations, supported by the Centre for Hidden Histories between 2014 and 2017.

The post is in two sections. The first attempts a (necessarily) loose definition of co-production and outlines its current importance in academic research. The second provides advice on forming productive relationships with non-university partners.

Co-production and academia

Public engagement is a broad, and ever more important topic. It has huge potential for research impact and significant relevance to the Research Excellence Framework (REF).[i] With the new Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) now in development, we can expect the concept to be around for some time to come and for public engagement to continue to be a core aspect of the academic’s work.

Researchers have described a ‘participatory turn’ through which traditional forms of knowledge transfer (whereby academics ‘transmit’ their research to non-academic audiences) evolved firstly into knowledge exchange (academics transmit research and receive non-academic knowledge and understanding in return) and more recently into full co-production (the academic and non-academic engage in fully collaborative activity).

In practical terms, it usually means an academic researcher and a non-academic partner coming together to collaborate on a research project for which they both take responsibility for completing. They share equally in its success.

Here are some examples:

This type of collaboration is still relatively new and there is little in the way of formal definition. Although there is a small literature on the topic, much of it is concerned with co-production in the public policy arena. However, whenever I have been asked what I mean by co-production, (it was a frequent question posed by people making applications to the co-production grant fund that I managed) I have said that it is the shared responsibility that makes it distinctive as ‘co-production’ rather than simple knowledge transfer or knowledge exchange.

Picture1
 Dr Andy Davies (University of Liverpool) and Madeleine Heneghan, Writing on the Wall community action group.

Simply put, if either of the partners was to cease participating, the project itself would fail.

It is an incredibly rewarding approach to public engagement and, done properly, can yield greater benefits than ‘traditional’ research approaches. It can provide researchers with access to ideas and information, to resources and to insights that are otherwise not available as mainstream sources. Furthermore, it recognises the value of the individuals and communities in research and opens the gates of the academy a little bit further.

However, for it to work effectively, it is crucial that a solid relationship exists between the partners.

Building an effective relationship with a non-university partner

First, some advice. You, the researcher, should take ownership of your community relationships. Think of them as a personal asset and an aspect of your portfolio. Consider them in parallel with your publication record. Maintain them, transfer them, develop them. Own them.

Working relationships with non-university partners are valuable, even if they don’t all lead to collaborative projects. A network of contacts in heritage organisations, local authorities and the third sector can provide the researcher with access to information and knowledge that hasn’t reached the academy, or is unavailable in established archives. I have worked with non-university partners who, for example, possess private collections of historical documents, such as photographs and letters, or are members of a minority community that is of historical interest to researchers. These groups have been able to share their resources and knowledge and the ensuing relationships have been of immense value to both parties.

Picture2
 Dr Lee Humber (Ruskin College) and members of the My Life, My Choice group.

OK, so where do we start? How does a researcher build a relationship with a non-academic partner?

What is a non-academic partner?

It can be difficult to come up with a single definitional outline that covers all of the types of organisation with which you may collaborate as a researcher. They may be publicly funded organisations, charities, clubs or voluntary societies or even commercial organisations. The particular type will depend to a large extent on the nature of your research and you may also find that your funder has strict rules about which type of organisation you may collaborate with, particularly if some of the funding will be shared with the partner.

The type (and size) of the organisation is also somewhat important. For some organisations, the project will be a single activity among many that they do. An example would be a school that sets up a small group of pupils to take part in a project. For others, the project is the group; it is the reason that the group was established or represents the total current workload of the organisation. An example would be a local history group that has been established to commemorate a significant anniversary event.

The question of size and focus is important for your relationship -it will effect how largely you feature in their plans and whether the group has to balance its work on the project against other demands on its time. It may also have an impact on how ‘professional’ or ‘personal’ your partner regards their work and this will set the tone for your relationship. For instance, a school may have stricter finance rules but will be more dispassionate about the finances than a small network of local householders who have formed a project group and who are largely self-financed.

The most important element of this phase is the building of the relationship. There are some barriers to a successful university-community partnership and in some ways, it’s easier to provide a guide to success by describing these barriers and suggesting ways through them.

On the community side, you will find that some individuals and organisations have a mistrust or suspicion of universities or otherwise feel that they are not suited to collaborative work of this nature. In my experience, the underlying reasons for this fall into three main categories.

  1. The partner feels proprietorial about their work/project/sources and fear that the university is going to come in and take over, or dominate the project to their exclusion.
  2. Imposter syndrome. The partner worries that their work is of minor importance or that they are not qualified to carry out the project. They convince themselves that the university is mistaken in taking an interest and worry that they will be ‘found out’ before long.
  3. Some potential partners have a mistrust of the state. They may come from a culture or society in which having the government (including state-supported institutions such as HEIs) taking an interest in you is something to be feared.

It takes time and effort to overcome these worries. It can be challenging and frustrating but it is worth pursuing and there are methods that you can use to put your new contact at ease.

Try to identify the reasons for the barrier. Don’t push (unless you feel it’s worth pursuing the reasons) but it might help when you come to offer reassurance as it can help you to have an open and constructive conversation.

Explain to your new partner what is in it for you. They may believe that you’re ultimately trying to snatch their historical collection of correspondence, while you’re sitting there mentally working out the impact factor that this it is worth to you. The best co-produced projects are ones in which each partner has a distinctive, but mutually dependent goal. It’s best to be honest about your goals from the outset.

Make yourself useful early on. This might be by sending them some formal research that you have discovered or forwarding them a relevant news article that triggers a conversation. As I’ve developed my own network, I’ve found that brokering a second relationship can be useful. One new contact of mine wanted to work with the Imperial War Museum. I was able to personally introduce them to the relevant person at IWM. This established my credentials and catalysed my relationship with the new partner.

Where possible, go to see the new contact in person. This can be tricky to manage with costs/time but it is well worth doing if you can. It’s always helpful to meet in a relaxed environment. My preference is always to suggest meeting in a coffee shop. They’re easy to find, usually conducive to quiet chat and offer an environment that sets people at their ease. Remember, you’re looking to develop a friendship. Find other topics to discuss and have a laugh with your new partner.

Picture3
 Meeting community group participants in Edin’s café, Nottingham, August 2016.

Throughout this, be aware of the timeframe. If you’re developing a project idea with a new partner, you will need to factor in the relationship building to the development time. This may take several months, and it may not be appropriate to write a formal proposal until after you have established the basis of a working relationship. It is for this reason that I suggest building a network as you develop your career and before you even have a project idea in mind. Some of the best projects I have seen have been developed by partners who have had a long-standing relationship and who created their project jointly.

Remember, the relationship is the most valuable product of all this effort. Even if you don’t succeed in launching a project, continue to nurture the relationship -other project ideas will come. The drive for co-production isn’t going to go away and, as a researcher with a rich network of non-university partners, you will be in the best position to meet its unique demands.


[i] [i] According to figures prepared by NCCPE, nearly half of REF2014 submissions cited public engagement as part of the path to impact.

 

 

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