What do the original social networking site Six Degrees.com, mobile computing company GO Corporation and the field of public engagement have in common?
The quick answer is that they were all first to market in fields that are growing exponentially. Another answer might be that you’ve never heard of them. And why haven’t you? These successful start-ups spotted a market gap and launched with fanfare, support and funding. But somehow each missed the mark. Each entered the market too early.
Take Six Degrees.com: launched in 1996, the site had around 3.5 million registered users. But what those users didn’t have was ongoing, swift and mobile access to the internet. The site’s infrastructure wasn’t ready for social networking, and Six Degrees closed in 2000, overtaken by Facebook and other later entrants. It’s a similar story for GO Corp: founded in 1987 to create mobile computing systems, the company is still in existence but has been dwarfed by Apple and Microsoft. GO Corp’s innovative ideas were well ahead of its time.
Arguably, university public engagement work was also ahead of its time. A movement across higher education that has been gradually growing and trying to get its voice heard over the last decade, public engagement is a field that speaks of co-creation with multiple publics. A field defined in terms of its ability to deliver mutual benefit and build social capital, in order to better connect universities with the rest of the world, and ensure the continuing relevance of our work.
Hang on, you say, I’ve heard of this. That terminology is familiar, I read it recently in Wonkhe. Ah, no – wait. That was civic engagement.
Rebadging public engagement
And that’s where we are. Here comes a new market entrant: civic engagement, with a new brand, a new camp of vocal supporters, new terminology and a new sense of energy and purpose.
People are listening to team civic engagement because their entry into the market is well-timed – universities are desperate to be relevant. On a daily basis, universities are criticised for our lack of transparency, our failure to adequately support students in crisis, our inability to deliver value for money and our doomed attempts to balance fair access and market pressures. What better time to set out your stall and demonstrate to the wider world just how much good work you actually do?
While I am, in one sense, overjoyed to see the sector getting behind civic engagement with such commitment, I’m also dismayed that it has taken this rebadging of engagement to get us there. And I’ll admit to some cynicism: I’m concerned that this new movement might owe more to public relations than a genuine desire to make a difference.
In our efforts to embrace this shiny new thing, we must not overlook the depth of learning available from experienced public engagement practitioners, who have been valiantly flying (an admittedly quiet) flag for years and delivering excellent results: from challenging perceptions of asylum-seeking unaccompanied children (University of Bath), to improving livestock health in Botswana (University of Bristol), and even using theatre to explore issues of oral health (University of Leeds). Their work has developed evaluation frameworks, informed best practice guides and inspired an entire community of practice.
The public engagement camp doesn’t seek glory. They don’t shout about the work they do, because it isn’t their work to shout about. Honest, real and true engagement is knitted into the very core business of the university and its community partners. It might not be immediately visible, but it’s there, and you’ve probably benefited from it yourself.
There are some places that are doing brilliantly visible public engagement work. For example, the University of Manchester has a very visible social responsibility agenda, and the University of Central Lancashire’s approach links public engagement, widening participation and community outreach under a strategic theme of social engagement.
Whatever you choose to badge it as, unless your work in this space is authentic and rooted in the mission, values and very heart of your institution, it won’t work. The ultimate aim here is to work in partnership with society to make a positive impact. We can realise this ambition through the community, civic, public or social engagement lens. But let’s not waste time navel-gazing, discussing how, reinventing established practice and debating definitions and evaluating approaches. It has already been done: public engagement can show us the way and gives us a foundation to build on.
Let’s delve a little deeper into this. The UPP Foundation Civic University Commission report has set out core principles for civic agreements, one of which is that agreements must be “developed collaboratively with local partners and informed by the voice of the local community”. This is the very crux of public engagement. Co-creation, dialogue and mutual benefit are all well-used phrases in the public engagement lexicon, but, crucially, they are not simply buzzwords. An approach characterised by co-creation and dialogue absolutely underpins the body of work delivered by public engagement practitioners, which has been well-honed and polished through extensive consultation, sharing of experience and learning from failure. Of course agreements should be developed with partners – it would be unthinkable to develop such an agreement in isolation. But this is not news; we have been talking about working with people and not doing things to people for years.
Then the UPP Foundation’s principles delve into evaluation and ensuring quality outputs. But, again, these are the backbone of good public engagement: books have been written on them and research careers have been built on them. They surely don’t need to be reinvented?
And finally, a gripe: the Civic University Commission reported that while their consultation found extensive evidence of ongoing civic engagement, they rarely came across any underpinning strategies or clearly-articulated plans. Yet just about every university will have a public engagement plan (at least in development, with an eye to the upcoming KEF) which will assess public and community engagement activity. Again, this feels like the right question asked in the wrong way. And if I were to be mischievous, I’d say it is more likely that some universities have a glitzy strategy but actually very little in the way of truly impactful work…
So, in the interest of doing our whole sector a favour, let’s stop creating mini-silos and instead nurture this work, in the way the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement has done for the past ten years. We’re all talking about the same thing and we don’t need a hostile takeover.