Friday, 12 December 2014

Public Engagement and Impact

What do we mean?

The term 'Public Engagement' (PE) means different things in different contexts. For the current purpose I would love to define what I mean by PE so that you, the reader, can compare my definition with what you think it means. But that is for another post. For the time being I just want to comment on a roadmap that I have outlined elsewhere which might help institutions get a bit better at doing it.

The roadmap comes in four parts - each with a paragraph or two of explanation. I have based the language I use in the discussion paragraphs on the sorts of things that might be discussed at an institute of further or higher education, because that is where I work. The same arguments are applicable everywhere.

A Roadmap

The credibility and reputation of an institution, and it's standing in the community, indeed it's long term sustainability, depend on how positively it interacts with it's constituency.
  • This creates an immediate problem, particularly for HE where it is often unclear who it is they are trying to interact positively with. Government? Research Councils? The EU? The vast sea of potential undergraduates in UK schools? The lucrative pool of overseas students who want to study at UK universities? It seems like there is not one single constituency, but many. It may be a little easier in other spheres.
Attempts to manage interactions with all constituencies by seeing them as a set of separate problems leads to an over-bureaucratic, unwieldy, factionalised mess.
  • Seriously, does anyone who works in the 'impact' team even know the name of the people who organise school visits? Does the department that deals with summer schools share data with the overseas recruitment office? Does the lone academic in Maths with money to employ a post-doc for outreach have any interest in sharing a platform with a student of dance? Does the 'widening participation' team even know the name of the individual who organises CafĂ© Scientifique - without official support - as a hobby? I could go on. Each team has it's own budget, goals, contacts, targets and inevitably this means that it has it's own agenda.
Attempts by the those responsible for the more powerful constituencies to encourage factional development lead to a cycle of deepening factionalisation.
  • I will borrow a term from geopolitics and call this Balkanisation; with apologies to my many friends in the Balkans. From an online dictionary: Balkanize - divide (a region or body) into smaller mutually hostile states or groups: eg 'ambitious neighbours would snatch pieces of territory, Balkanizing the country'.

    The worst aspect of this in the current HE landscape is the 'impact' component of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) which we will come back to in a later post I hope. But there are others and I will not begin to list them here.
Attempts by management (which we hope is not factionalised, but often is) to address this often comes in the form of a plan.
  • Let's face it, if there ever was a plan that involved anything more than ticking boxes then we have long since forgotten how to write it. A plan is what you get if you buy an Airfix kit (showing my age). A plan is a sheet of step-by-step instructions with clear goals (tick boxes) - and although these do not involve deadlines you could add those yourself!

    A strategy, in contrast, is what you start with at the beginning of a chess game. It is smart, adaptive, and does not involve a fixed order of goals. What institutions need is a PE strategy and people need to be encouraged to think, and to be rewarded for thinking, strategically.

Public engagement is simply the antithesis of the planned Balkanisation of interactions with outside agencies and groups.

There - I hope the denouement surprised you! It was my intention to make you think that this post was about what we could, or should, be doing; or maybe about how much we could, or should, be spending. I am happy to rant about these things - indeed I have done so elsewhere. But this particular rant is about something different. Public Engagement is the priority you give to the strategic integration of everything reputationally enhancing.