culture change

Curating an action learning program to develop our collective understanding of civic engagement

updated on 31 Oct 2023
4 minutes

By Zoe Williams, NCCPE Senior Project Officer - Civic

Gemma (left) and Zoe (right) presenting at an NCIA event

13 / 10 / 2023

Over the summer, Gemma and I have been planning an action learning programme for 12 civic partnerships from across England. The programme is part of the National Civic Impact Accelerator and aims to develop our collective understanding of what works and in what context for effective civic engagement. It’s been interesting and thought provoking to see the common challenges that have been emerging, and we wanted to share them with you to see if you recognised any in your own work.

Partnerships were invited to express interest in the programme in the spring by submitting a summary of their challenges and experiences within civic engagement. 12 partnerships were invited to join the programme, representing diverse places and are at different points on their civic journeys.

Once all the partnerships were on board, we started the difficult process of selecting themes for the action learning to be based around. To determine the themes of the groups, the team began with reviewing the expressions of interest submitted by the partnerships. We looked for common challenges in the core work of the partnerships as well as characteristics of place and the complexities involved in this work.

Through the initial analysis, we identified the following areas of commonality:

  • Scaling up sustainable and effective civic engagement; how to get it resourced in your organisation.
  • Navigating complex political and economic geography both internally and externally.
  • Supporting leadership to ‘buy-in’ to the civic agenda.
  • Utilising resources and facilities for the benefit of the community; physical resources, specialist knowledge, student time etc.
  • Equitable civic engagement partnerships; fostering trust for equitable partnerships.
  • Health inequalities; working collaboratively and effectively with partners to tackle local health inequalities and challenges
  • Measuring civic impact; tools, ideas, and resources to measure the impact of civic engagement.
  • Evidence-based civic engagement planning; what works in what setting and how do we maximise impact? How can evidence be used to develop a strategy? How can universities demonstrate the link between impact and return on investment?
  • Strategies for reducing inequality; balancing the needs of locals, local communities, students and staff.
  • Innovative civic engagement; how can use innovative approaches to address local challenges and create inclusive systemic change?
  • Defining civic engagement within partnership and institutions.

We took these areas to colleagues in the NCIA project from CRESR (Centre for Regional Economic and social research) and ICS (Institute for Community Studies) and talked through how these may work in the action learning setting.  Unsurprisingly, the theme we had the biggest discussion around was ‘defining civic engagement’. Although we recognised there was a sizeable appetite to define this within the partnerships’ expressions of interest, it was decided this was not the best way to spend action learning time. We would instead advise partnerships to decide what civic engagement was for their partnership within their setting, rather than creating another broad definition that might be hard to apply to the nuances of each individual context.

This group decided to present the following themes to the partnerships and get their input:

  • Mobilising knowledge for civic impact                                 
  • Equitable partnerships for civic engagement                                    
  • Balancing the needs of locals/ local communities, staff and students                                          
  • Scaling up effective civic engagement                                 
  • Embedding civic engagement in organisational strategy                              
  • Navigating complex political and local geography                                         
  • Collaborating with communities and partners to address the climate agenda 
  • Measuring civic impact                              
  • Strategies for reducing inequality

Our final step was to bring the themes to an online webinar with the partnerships for them to interrogate and prioritise. They were also invited to submit ‘wild card’ themes. Through synthesising the discussions from this webinar and meeting with partnership leads, we whittled the themes down to:

  • Measuring civic impact 
  • Collaborating with communities and partners to address the climate agenda 
  • Mobilising knowledge for civic impact 
  • Navigating complex local and political geographies 
  • Building and maintaining equitable and effective partnerships 
  • Balancing the needs of locals, local communities, staff and students 
  • Valuing and embedding civic engagement in organisational strategy 

After this lengthy theme-setting process, we were delighted to launch the action learning groups at an in-person day in September. These groups will meet 4 times over the 4 months and take insights from their discussions into their settings to affect change for their partnership. We will reconvene in person in Spring 2024 and re-evaluate the themes for action learning.

We’ll be sharing our own insights and reflections from the action learning process over the coming months, so watch this space.

Some questions that came to mind when we were writing this blog:

What challenges do you face in civic engagement? How is it different to public engagement?

Do the themes we will be exploring resonate with you?

If you have any questions about the NCIA project, do contact Zoe –