Public engagement describes the myriad of ways in which the activity and benefits of higher education and research can be shared with the public. Engagement is by definition a two-way process, involving interaction and listening, with the goal of generating mutual benefit.
Inspiring, Informing and Educating the public and making the work of HE more accessible:
One common purpose for public engagement is to let people know about the work going on in universities, to inspire or excite them about it and its relevance to them, and to find involving and empowering ways of engaging them with that work.
The kinds of activity commonly involved include
- presentations and lectures
- lifelong learning festival appearances
- media work
- writing for non-specialists, whether online or in journalism or books.
Although the emphasis is on ‘transmission’ of knowledge, it is widely accepted that effective communication and information sharing must avoid talking ‘at’ people: ‘informing’ should not be a one-way process. Although the interactions are usually initiated by the university, listening to and responding sensitively to the interests, concerns and insights of the public is always critical, as is considering the needs of your audiences beforehand.
Actively listen to the public’s views, concerns and insights
Another purpose that engagement can serve is to ‘receive’ information. There are a number of methods and techniques which can be used to elicit insights and expertise from the public to inform the university’s work, where the explicit focus is on maximising the quality of feedback and involvement from the public, and the listening and reflection from the university staff involved.
The kinds of activities commonly involved include
- public meetings and discussion events
- panels and user groups
- online consultation
- deliberation and ‘upstream’ engagement
With these kinds of approaches a common criticism is that they can be conducted in a tokenistic way – for instance when minds have already been made up; or when there is little prospect of the public’s views actually influencing the university’s work. However, when appropriately applied, these types of activity can have a profound influence on your work.
A third purpose moves beyond ‘transmitting’ or ‘receiving’ to collaborative working: here the intention is to work together with the public to make things happen or to solve particular problems together. This might involve
- collaborative research projects
- creating opportunities for students to work with community organisations as part of their course
- Helpdesks or the like, to make it easy for people outside the university to draw on university expertise.
A step further than collaboration is giving people direct control. This might be something like a Citizens Jury, and a researchers role in this case will be to provide impartial information as in the inform section.
(Much of this content is taken from the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement website.)