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Mission (im)possible

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Puzzle pieces

Sophie Duncan, NCCPE Deputy Director, reflects on the results of our website poll asking people to assess their institution's approach to embedding engagement using the NCCPE EDGE tool.

We have been really intrigued to see the results of our poll asking people to assess their institution’s approach to embedding engagement in its mission. The poll was based on our popular EDGE tool – a self-assessment framework that helps people explore their institution’s support for public engagement, and how it might be improved. Developed as part of the Beacons project, this tool is part of the NCCPE’s ‘tools for talking’ resources – encouraging people to consider their views as to their institution's support for public engagement, compare it with the views of others in their institution, and discuss their different perspectives. When using the EDGE tool with university staff we often find differences between the experiences of researchers and managers, suggesting that even when institutions support engagement in theory, it doesn’t always translate into practice.

So the results of the poll were interesting with the majority of the 748 participants suggesting that their institution was currently in the ‘developing’ stage of embedding engagement in their mission – where public engagement is referenced sporadically within mission documents and strategies, but is not considered a priority area. Indeed the distribution across the four EDGE tool levels was as follows:

EDGE tool poll results

These results hint at improvements that have happened in recent years with a range of initiatives seeking to support a culture change in how universities support engagement. Last year's State of Play report provides robust evidence, that progress has been made, but there is still room to develop.

So what would embedding engagement into the mission look like? To help people explore this, we have developed a ‘mini-EDGE’ tool focused exclusively on the importance of mission, which provides lots of practical guidance.  It focuses on ensuring public engagement is prioritised in the institution's official mission;  building a shared understanding of public engagement and its value; strategic planning, and ensuring that public engagement is aligned intelligently with other priorities.

We have seen some great examples of this being put into practice. Our work with Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), where we piloted our Engage Watermark process, provided such an example. Central to QMUL is a set of key values, with one highlighting the importance of engagement with their local community. The six aims of the strategic plan include one focussed specifically on engagement. You can find out more here: www.qmul.ac.uk/strategy

What was particularly impressive with QMUL was the fact that the strategy wasn’t a document that sat on a shelf, but one that reflected the core focus of the institution, evidenced in the values and engagement practices of staff at all levels, and in the experiences of the partners that they worked with.

We would love to see more examples of strategies that support effective engagement, and articulate why this matters. Do share your examples below.

Whilst culture change is still a work in progress, it is pleasing to see so many of you assessing your institution as ‘embedding’ public engagement in its mission. You might find it interesting to explore if and how others you work with agree. It is likely to lead to really interesting discussions. However I am left with one thought. When we developed the EDGE tool one of the engagement leaders in the UK reflected that embedding would mean that engagement no longer would need to be explicitly mentioned in mission statements.  It would characterise the whole institution’s approach to all aspects of its work. What do you think? Are they right?

If you are looking to develop more effective support for public engagement, the RCUK SEE-PER call is now open.

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