Story of Change - UCL Public Engagement Unit


“If you end up grinding your heads against a brick wall trying to solve a problem in one way and it’s not working, you can lose enthusiasm very quickly.  So we try things, and if they wither, we just try something else,” Steve Cross, Head of Public Engagement, UCL


UCL is London's Global University, a research-intensive,  outward-looking institution. UCL is committed to inter-disciplinary research: UCL’s ‘Grand Challenges’, four research themes that cut across all faculties, exemplify this approach.

‘Our university is a modern, outward-looking institution, committed to engaging with the major issues of our times. One of the world’s leading multidisciplinary universities, UCL today is a true academic powerhouse’

The UCL-led Beacon for Public Engagement (BPE) programme aims to facilitate and co-ordinate public engagement opportunities, through identifying and building upon best practice and to encourage a culture change at UCL with regard to public engagement.  Dr Steve Cross, UCL’s Head of Public Engagement, arrived after the Beacon bid had been won, in May 2008. The only structure in place at that time was the UCL Public Engagement Steering Group. He now leads [in September 2010] the Public Engagement Unit (PEU), a team of three staff, with an Evaluation Officer and a Public Engagement Co-ordinator. This team works to encourage staff-led public engagement projects, to develop institutional strategy and to support and facilitate projects that help staff and students to engage for the first time.

The PEU sits within the portfolio of Professor Michael Worton, Vice-Provost (Academic & International). Professor Worton’s vision shaped the work of the PEU from the outset:  ‘In our first meeting, Michael talked about his vision for engagement at UCL-  his desire for UCL to become more relevant, to give back more to London, to be more responsive and accessible,’ Steve Cross, Head of Public Engagement, UCL.


From the outset the PEU adopted the aims of the wider Beacon for Public Engagement (BPE) programme. These are:

  1. Create a culture within HEIs where public engagement is formalised and embedded as a valued and recognised activity for staff at all levels and for students;
  2. Build capacity for public engagement within institutions and encourage staff at all levels, postgraduate students, and undergraduates where appropriate, to become involved;
  3. Ensure HEIs address public engagement within their strategic plans and that this is cascaded to departmental level;
  4. Create networks within and across institutions, and with external partners, to share good practice, celebrate their work and ensure that those involved in public engagement feel supported and able to draw on shared expertise;
  5. Enable HEIs to test different methods of supporting public engagement and to share learning.

“Clarity about these aims makes it easy for us to ensure that each project or bit of activity links to our overall strategy” Steve Cross, Head of Public Engagement, UCL.  There is a use of a wide range of strategies to achieve these aims, and to embed public engagement within UCL. The delivery of programme activities includes: funding and facilitating public engagement projects, networking and brokerage, training and mentoring, providing support and advice, rewarding and recognising public engagement, and influencing university policies and strategies.

Information gathering

The PEU deliberately started in a low key, responsive way: information gathering, building networks across the university and recruiting the team. “For my first 6 months we did very little project activity, and an awful lot of information location, having cups of tea, talking to people. My job was to start the groundswell from below, build the case for engagement as a strategic necessity, collect information” Steve Cross, Head of Public Engagement, UCL.

A key early activity that the PEU commissioned was a baseline survey. The baseline survey looked at attitudes to public engagement, and tried to understand how much work staff undertook. The baseline staff survey conducted in 2008 as a starting point for UCL’s public engagement work demonstrated widespread support for public engagement among respondents, whilst highlighting the variety of existing public engagement work happening across the institution. The survey also revealed two key findings that helped shape the PEUs work. 

Firstly, it revealed that for most people it was not management that was holding back their public engagement activities, but simply not knowing where to start. The PEU therefore began to focus on providing staff and students with opportunities (e.g. funding schemes, events) to begin to develop their skills and experience.  

Secondly, it also revealed that the primary driver for the 70% of survey respondents who stated that they did engage with the public was enjoyment. The PEU has tried to maintain that sense of enjoyment throughout the programme.

“Increasingly people are doing PE because 'they have to', for instance in seeking to meet Research Excellence Framework (REF) requirements. Their primary driver is not enjoyment. However, we want to make sure they still get enjoyment out of it, because that's what will encourage them to engage effectively rather than as a box-ticking exercise” Steve Cross, Head of Public Engagement, UCL.

Bursaries and grants

One of the key ways in which these opportunities were provided to staff was through the provision of public engagement grants.  One funding scheme developed is the Beacon Bursaries. The Beacon Bursaries provides small grants of up to £1,500 to support projects or activities that will help UCL staff and students to connect their research or teaching with people outside UCL.

A variety of initiatives have been developed and supported under the scheme. These activities range in focus (i.e. from telling public groups about the university’s work to creating knowledge in collaboration with communities and interest groups outside the university), subject matter (e.g. urban planning, chemistry, medicine and psychology), audience (e.g. young people, patient groups and local residents) and methods used (e.g. training, panels, open days, events, focus groups and festivals).

The key to funding as a strategic development tool is the fact that the PEU sees itself as an active partner in the project process: “We don't just hand you the money, we are involved throughout the entire process” (Steve Cross , Head of Public Engagement, UCL).  

You can find out more in the Beacon Bursaries case study.

Bright Club

Performer at Bright ClubBright Club brings together a cross-disciplinary group of researchers, trains them and gives them a space to share their research with each other and the public.  It happens every month in a comedy club in Clerkenwell, London. A professional comedian comperes the evening, and staff and students perform short sets about aspects of their research or teaching, all with a single unifying theme.

Bright Club serves a number of purposes. Firstly, it was set up with the aim of targeting a specific public audience: 20 to 40 year olds outside academia.  Secondly, it is part of the continuous start-up process for staff and students new to public  engagement. Every month Bright Club encourages the PEU to contact and involve staff who have never engaged with the public before.

Performing at Bright Club has been a very positive first activity for many, leading them on to taking part in other engagement projects. Monitoring and evaluation undertaken indicates that Bright Club gave speakers a starting point for a whole range of public engagement activities, events and funding applications, aimed at different audiences and addressing different topics. For example, three Bright Club speakers were asked to created UCL TV mini-lectures for Youtube about their research following their involvement in the project.

Find out more in the Bright Club case study.

Reward and recognition

The BPE programme has had a major effect on the way that UCL rewards public engagement work, building on the programmes in place to reward excellence in other fields.

The PEU took a pragmatic approach, and recognised an opportunity to make a quick impact.

“To start with we looked for things that the Unit could do itself directly which didn’t require profound organisational change to happen. That’s when we came up with the idea of the Provost’s Awards for Public Engagement” Steve Cross, Head of Public Engagement, UCL.

These Awards are a celebration of the people who are engaging effectively, and at the same time provide an opportunity for senior staff to communicate the importance of public engagement to fellow staff and students. The peer nomination system gives the opportunity for recognition of large numbers of staff and students, as well as helping the PEU to identify good practice they may not have known about. “We never use something, such as the Provost’s Awards for Public Engagement, to achieve just one outcome. Anything we're doing we look to exploit to trigger as much change as possible, to get new people involved, for example” Steve Cross, Head of Public Engagement, UCL.  

Find out more in the Provost's Award case study

Public engagement’s increasing profile across UCL had a useful longer term impact: “In our second year,when we turned our attention to the promotions criteria to see where we could insert PE, it was clear that UCL had already begun to recognise staff for this work because it was already part of the institutional culture” Steve Cross, Head of Public Engagement, UCL.   

Champions and leaders

In parallel with building an innovative programme of activity involving staff and students, the PEU concentrated on building a pool of senior champions. The support of Professor Michael Worton has been critical, particularly in championing public engagement as a means to enriching the research and teaching within the university.

 “Public Engagement serves not only to bind universities much more closely and (in creatively complex ways) with the communities with which they work; it also helps us to bring our research and teaching together in closer and more productive ways” Professor Michael Worton, Vice-Provost (Academic & International), UCL.

Michael Worton expands on these ideas in his viewpoint, in the 'why does it matter' area of this website.

Another champion of public engagement was the Director of UCL Museums, Collections and Public Engagement, Sally MacDonald, who played a vital role in establishing the credibility of the PEU internally.

Brokering partnerships

An aspect of the BPE programme that has greatly aided the work of the PEU is the informal relationships that have been built up with over 100 different institutions, through activities and delivery of projects, many then galvanised by the funding schemes. “We put money in to start staff working with a partner; they continue doing things together without us contributing.” Steve Cross,Head of Public Engagement, UCL

Mission, strategy and leadership

Two years into the BPE programme the PEUs attention turned to the challenge of generating a Public Engagement Strategy for UCL.  Three working groups of senior academics and support staff have been established to oversee the process.  The rationale was simple: a strategy generated by 36 managers from across all aspects of the University would have much more lasting impact than one generated by the PEU alone. 

To prepare the ground, Steve Cross, Head of Public Engagement, and Sally MacDonald, Director of Museums, Collections and Public Engagement, met every Dean and every Vice-Provost individually to talk through their vision of public engagement for UCL.  They synthesized the findings in a draft report. At the same time the PEUs Evaluation Officer, Gemma Moore, ran an online survey with staff, which became another report for the Working Groups to draw on.  

Emergent approach

Perhaps the defining feature of the PEU approach is the flexible, emergent way the unit has worked: “If you end up grinding your heads against a brick wall trying to solve a problem in one way and it’s not working, you can lose enthusiasm very quickly.  So we try things, and if they wither, we just try something else,” Steve Cross, Head of Public Engagement, UCLEqually, if people come to the PEU with an idea about public engagement that they are enthusiastic about, the PEU will try to find a way to support them.

Gaining the trust of senior management has enabled the emergent approach the PEU have adopted. The PEU can make decisions quickly, because it has freedom to be innovative and does not need to seek the approval of too many formal structures for minor programme changes.


The decision was taken early on to recruit an internal evaluation officer. Gemma Moore, Evaluation Officer (Public Engagement) is part of the core PEU team and is responsible for evaluating the UCL-led BPE programme, and providing support and advice to staff and students to evaluate their own engagement activities: “I see my role in the PEU as that of a critical friend and a repository of information: capturing and sharing the knowledge generated” Gemma Moore, Evaluation Officer (Public Engagement), UCL.

The UCL-led BPE approach to evaluation influences the programme and project activities on a day to day basis, as well as through a formal 6 month reporting structure. The 5 strategic BPE aims frame the approach to evaluation, with specific indicators developed under each of the aims. “The evaluation informs practice so we can constantly improve the ways we support engagement. It is a non-stop formative evaluation” Steve Cross, Head of Public Engagement, UCL.

You can find out more about Gemma's approach to evaluating the unit here

Next steps

Funding for the Public Engagement Unit ends in December 2011 and some form of support structure will be needed in the future. The decision about this structure rests with the academics in the strategy working groups, who will make their recommendations to the senior management team. 


Successes and pitfalls

  1. A combination of external drivers and internal stability has helped public engagement at UCL to thrive.  Externally, the increasing emphasis on public engagement from the Research Councils and HEFCE – for instance through ‘Pathways to Impact’ - has encouraged staff and students to engage the public.
  2. The way in which the PEU has been managed has encouraged the team to take risks and to innovate: “We have a steering group rather than a formal committee with a complex reporting structure. What that means is we can make decisions very quickly, and take opportunities as they present themselves. Our managers trust us to make the right decisions” (Steve Cross, Head of Public Engagement, UCL)
  3. Some of the programmes tried by the PEU have failed, usually because the unit tired to effect change to quickly.  For example, some partnerships have not been given time to grow naturally, leading to strained shared projects. One funding scheme failed to take into account the usual grant-writing cycle and attracted very few applicants.

Lessons learned

Key lessons learnt include:

  • Senior champions are crucial to give the programme credibility and status, but the support of a variety of such figures is required to give the programme traction.
  • Visibility is critical to maximising the opportunities to network and communicate about engagement.
  • Building informal partnerships based on shared projects and needs is more effective than attempting to build a formal partnership very quickly without identifying shared needs.
  • Engagement practitioners from non-academic environments need a thick skin and an ability to both understand and articulate the benefits of engaging to sometimes sceptical colleagues. “Academics like to robustly challenge things” (Steve Cross, Head of Public Engagement, UCL). It means constantly reaffirming the value of what the PEU is doing, and being able to articulate that effectively to a range of audiences.
  • There is a clear, strong vision and sense of purpose for public engagement. Despite diversity of activities, systems and processes that have been introduced and facilitated to promote and encourage public engagement, it is clear how each aspect contributes to achieving the overarching strategic aims of the BPE programme.
  • There is a need to build up a public engagement community of practice, where public engagement is not considered an ‘add-on’ to staff’s duties, but linked into research and teaching.

Top Tips

  1. Allow things to fail. If an idea, activity or a project hasn’t gained traction and if the evidence is showing that things don't work, don’t be afraid to move on.
  2. Be flexible. Allow yourself the freedom to add things to the programme when an opportunity comes along.
  3. Be as transparent as possible. Making reports and documents available helps staff understand what the PEU does. “We are a pilot and the easiest way of showing people our experiments is to be transparent”.
  4. Willingness to change. The flexibility in the management of a PEU has contributed to a flexible, emergent approach of a programme.
  5. Ownership. Allow ownership over engagement to grow. It is about support and not control: everyone is part of the decision making. “It's owned by the staff who are leading now, but are also the staff who will be leading in the future”.
  6. Take time. Do scoping and fact finding in the beginning and don't plan a lot of activities just yet. “I had cups of tea with staff and students and tried to understand UCL. You can only change a culture if you understand the culture”.
  7. Quick wins.  If you can see a quick and easy way to make an impact – seize it.
  8.  Look for multiple outcomes from the same activity.  Try to use activities to achieve more than one aim.
  9. Invest in evaluation to evidence the impact of your activity;  to capture the views and insights of your key stakeholders; and to ensure that you are continually learning from your work 

Contacts at UCL

Steve Cross:  Head of Public Engagement at UCL / 020 7679 3530 Strategy, culture change, embedding engagement, triggering activity. 
Hilary Jackson: Public Engagement Coordinator at UCL hilary.jackson@ / 0207 679 2489
Funding, supporting networks and individual projects.
Gemma Moore: Public engagement evaluation officer at UCL / 0207 679 4112 Evaluation plans and methods, public engagement case studies.