Starting from Scratch: building support from the ground up

updated on 20 Jun 2024
5 minutes

Hannah Coombs, Research Impact Support Officer at the University of Portsmouth and colleague, Jen Gupta, hosted a panel discussion at Engage 2024. Here, Hannah shares the journey they embarked on to embed a public engagement network at their institution, the themes that emerged from their panel discussion, and top tips for others working to champion engagement within their organisation.

A group of people at Engage conference sitting around tables listening at a panel session

Towards the end of 2022, I came together with my colleague, Jen Gupta, with the aim of building links within the University of Portsmouth between those who do work around Public Engagement. At this point, there was no dedicated central support for public engagement. Jen was part of a small team supporting Public Engagement at a very local level - developing PE for a specific institute within a faculty. 

We had clear expectations and boundaries: we were going to set up an internal, grassroots engagement network to improve connection across the University. People would be able to share ideas and best practice, connect with colleagues for potential collaborations, and discuss the barriers they are facing. We had obtained the strategic support of Research and Innovation Services management and at Associate Dean level, giving us a clear route to escalate any ideas or issues, allowing us to make progress while maintaining boundaries.

A lot has changed since then. In late 2023, senior figures supporting the Public Engagement agenda left the institution, and by Spring 2024, struggles across the sector began to impact our institution: institutional changes to management structures, budgetary constraints, and uncertainty around roles came into the equation. Our well-laid plans and clear routes of communication were gone, and we were struggling to find any external accounts or guidance on what our next steps could be - or what we should really avoid.

Cue our panel at the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement’s Engage Live Conference: ‘Starting from Scratch: Building institutional support from the ground up’. We saw the conference as an opportunity to bring together peers and find out about their experiences and lessons learnt along the journey to instituting support for public engagement.


The Panel

Kelly Auty (Head of Knowledge Exchange Development and Evaluation at Nottingham Trent University) and Dom Galliano (Freelance Public Engagement Consultant) joined the panel, bringing diverse experiences varying from institutions with only narrow public engagement support (such as centred on student volunteering) to Public Engagement management and advisory roles. Between our two speakers and the varied backgrounds of attendees, conversations around the question of how to build support bloomed and continued beyond the confines of the panel session.


Key Tips

  • Identify who your institutional leaders are and consider them as stakeholders. Different figures will have different agendas. What do they want to hear? How can you frame your priorities to align with theirs?
  • Be ready to defend what you are doing to the most senior person in your institution.
  • Play the politics. Every institution will have internal politics, whether you like that or not, so play the game to the advantage of Public Engagement, building alliances with the right people. 
  • Integrate Engagement into existing priorities, strategies or definitions. It could be a part of everything, rather than a stand alone responsibility.
  • Don’t do more than your capacity or responsibility. If you keep doing things that aren’t your job, then the problem won’t be seen. 
  • Build a culture of Public Engagement, and be flexible. It can mean different things to different people. Go through a mapping process.


The conversations held in this panel were insightful and gave some great tips and food for thought. But we’re far from a comprehensive answer and each case will look different. Some of these unanswered questions consider internal circumstances whilst others address the environment at a national or international level. 


Challenges and concerns

  • The challenge of funding: finding it, the amount, and the disparities across different subject areas and funding bodies
  • How do you measure the impact of Public Engagement?
  • Mismatch between how things are being done: funders aren’t always up to date on the best practice
  • Struggles of capacity - when you’re trying to start from a minimum, how do you accommodate efforts to build PE alongside your primary role?
  • How do you feed up good work to those in senior roles? 


One issue that we had in mind throughout the process was the bias of the group. Whilst NCCPE do offer bursaries to support attendance, that doesn’t remove all barriers to attendance. If your institution doesn’t prioritise Public Engagement, it’s unlikely that you would be encouraged to take the time away from the office to attend, or even that you would feel yourself to be in a position to ask. We came across very few people at the conference at quite as low a level of institutional support as in our context. 


Next steps 

To include as many views in this conversation as possible, and to keep the process flowing, we are running a padlet board to gather more thoughts around the questions. These might be accounts of your own experiences, questions or issues that you are facing, or potential answers to some of the questions posed in the session or on the padlet itself. Feel free to add whatever you think might add to the conversation.


There won’t be any one-size-fits-all solution to establishing institutional support for public engagement. Our hope is that by fostering communication and providing a space to share ideas and experiences, we can find some patterns, collect some tips, learn from others’ struggles, and pass these lessons on to create a progressively more informed and supportive environment for other institutions across the sector hoping to increase their internal support.