What purposes can public engagement serve?
Launch of the DrugsFutures project, bringing together specialists and non-specialists to shape the future of drugs policy through consultation. BA/Laura Mtungwazi
Public engagement describes a range of approaches that universities or research institutes can take to involve the public with their work. We have differentiated three distinct, if often overlapping, purposes that engagement can serve. Being clear about what your purpose is helps you chose the appropriate method and approach, and to evaluate whether you've been successful in achieving your aims (you can find out more about how to plan public engagement activity in our How to do it section)
Informing: Inspiring, informing and educating the public, and making the work of HE more accessible
Geographer Jason Dittmer speaks at Bright Club, UCL's variety night where researchers perform stand up comedy about their work. Hilary Jackson
One common purpose for public engagement is to let people know about the work going on in universities, to inspire or excite them about it and its relevance to them, and to find involving and empowering ways of engaging them with that work.
The kinds of activity commonly involved include
- presentations and lectures
- lifelong learning festival appearances
- media work
- writing for non-specialists, whether online or in journalism or books.
Although the emphasis is on 'transmission' of knowledge, it is widely accepted that effective communication and information sharing must avoid talking 'at' people: 'informing' should not be a one-way process. Although the interactions are usually initiated by the university, listening to and responding sensitively to the interests, concerns and insights of the public is always critical, as is considering the needs of your audiences beforehand.
Consulting: Actively listening to the public's views, concerns and insights
Another purpose that engagement can serve is to 'receive' information. There are a number of methods and techniques which can be used to elicit insights and expertise from the public to inform the university's work, where the explicit focus is on maximising the quality of feedback and involvement from the public, and the listening and reflection from the university staff involved.
The kinds of activities commonly involved include
- public meetings and discussion events
- panels and user groups
- online consultation
- deliberation and 'upstream' engagement
With these kinds of approaches a common criticism is that they can be conducted in a tokenistic way – for instance when minds have already been made up; or when there is little prospect of the public's views actually influencing the university's work. However, when appropriately applied, these types of activity can have a profound influence on your work.
Collaborating: Working in partnership with the public to solve problems together, drawing on each other's expertise
Students and school children involved in the University of Brighton's On Our Doorsteps project - a novel approach to volunteering and public engagement Stephen Lawrence from Snap it Now
A third purpose moves beyond 'transmitting' or 'receiving' to collaborative working: here the intention is to work together with the public to make things happen or to solve particular problems together. This might involve
- collaborative research projects
- creating opportunities for students to work with community organisations as part of their course
- Helpdesks or the like, to make it easy for people outside the university to draw on university expertise.
Engagement in Practice
In practice all three of these different purposes can be involved in an engagement activity or project. But effective engagement is often clearly focused on just one of them, and most importantly has well understood roles for the different participants and carefully thought through objectives.
As we understand 'engagement' to require active involvement and mutual benefit it is possible to also draw a line and to exclude certain types of interactions with the public: for instance, PR campaigns, which seek to persuade the public of a particular point of view.
We explore how purposeful engagement can be designed and executed in much more depth in the How to do it area of the site.
In the next section we explore who universities actually engage with.