Why does support matter?
"I've always been clear with staff that we will not do their Public Engagement for them. The UCL Public Engagement Unit is very much a support department, not a control department. We help staff and students to do the things they want to do, we don't tell people what to do." Steve Cross, Head of Public Engagement Unit, UCL
Although public engagement often happens spontaneously, and is driven by the interests and commitment of individual staff and students, there are important ways in which institutional support and co-ordination can enhance quality, improve efficiency and support innovation.
We've learned that the following areas are critical to supporting high quality, effective public engagement:
- Investment in expert support
- Developing a culture supportive of public engagement can be enhanced by investing in expert support to provide a focal point for sharing expertise; bringing people together to learn; brokering and supporting partnerships; and delivering some key co-ordinating functions. This maximises efficiencies and can increase the quality and impact of your public engagement.
- Effective networks and co-ordination
- Most universities have a large amount of public engagement activity happening in an organic way. Some co-ordination and active support for networking can help to ensure that the quality of that work is enhanced and expertise is shared. A flexible and collaborative approach to co-ordination creates ownership of engagement across the organisation and economies of scale, minimises duplication, supports evaluation, and can stimulate new ideas.
- Providing opportunities for staff and students to get involved
- One of the key barriers to staff and students getting involved is a perceived lack of opportunities to get started. Support and co-ordination can help ensure that there is a range of easy to access entry points, for instance by running an institution-wide programme of events and other engagement opportunities. Ongoing training and development opportunities allow people to continually improve the quality of their public engagement.
- Evaluation and evidence gathering
- Evaluation helps improve the quality, impact and value for money of your institution’s public engagement. It can also demonstrate to funders and other stakeholders the impact of the activity being undertaken, and help to ensure that expertise and learning is networked across your institution.
- Brokerage and partnership working
- Public engagement relies on partnership and collaboration with a range of external organisations, many of whom are likely to find it difficult to approach the institution and to find the right people to work with. Working with external partners can also open up new sources of funding and lead to greater research impact. University research offices and public engagement or knowledge exchange specialists can help to broker such relationships by facilitating interaction between the university and the wider community.