Our guide to developing a public engagement activity will take you through the entire planning process, providing tips for determining: desired outcomes, level of public participation, target audience; and information on skills training and development, funding support, and evaluation considerations.
Clearly define and articulate what you want to get out of it. These objectives will be fundamental when you decide the method or technique you use to engage the public, and will help you keep your activity focused.
We can’t advise strongly enough against doing public engagement just to ‘tick boxes’. If you are feeling a bit reluctant about public engagement, try to think of some aims which would really benefit you. This could make the difference between a mutually-unsatisfying public engagement exercise, and a worthwhile personal development opportunity.
Your Key Aims could include
- Improved research/teaching skills (such as writing, communication or presentation)
- New skills for the public (e.g. evaluating community projects, dealing with minority language groups or skills for parents)
- Improved personal and/or working relationships
- Altered public perceptions or redress common misconceptions (for the better)
- Improved communication channels
- Access to resources or non-academic expertise
- Early identification of potential issues, conflicts and benefits
- Promotion of a wider circle of responsibility for decisions and actions – active citizenship
- Generation of new ideas
- Formation of new formal partnerships
- Finding shared values/agendas, potentially with opposition groups
- Improved lifestyle or services for people
- Informing public policy
- Local support and goodwill for a new idea or initiative
- Raised profile of research/organisation, and improved community relations which will raise your profile, and that of your research, in the community.
Once you have clearly defined key aims, you need to drill down a bit further to identify the best way to achieve these.
The remit, background, your audience and activity purpose will all influence each other- and will feed into your initiative.
How much, or how little, will be changed by your event? You can decide what level of participation you would like the public to have, based on how much they can realistically influence or change your work.
You will be making an agreement with the public. What can yours look like?
- “I will keep you informed.”
- “I will keep you informed, listen to and acknowledge concerns and provide feedback on how public input has influenced any decisions.”
- “I will work with you to ensure that your concerns and aspirations are reflected in the solutions we develop, and provide feedback on how public input influenced the decision.”
- “I will implement what you decide.”
You should also factor risks into your remit. If you consider these now, you can manage them more effectively if they do arise.
- Reputation: you will be upholding your personal reputation, that of your organisation and potentially of your research subject as a whole.
- Future support: If you promise too much now, and fail to deliver the promised results, you may find a lack of support for your public engagement in the future.
- Resources: realistically, how far will your time, resources and skills allow you to get? Can you collaborate with another individual or organisation to spread the workload and access a new pool of experience and resources?
- Relationships: The public will feel let down and manipulated if they included as a token measure. Get them involved from the start if you want to build a productive and mutually rewarding relationship.
Background and wider context
Do you have a good understanding of how the public has previously engaged with your research? You should be thinking about how you can meet the needs of the public, and consider any sensitivities there may be.
You could also think about other organisations which have already organised public engagement with similar ambitions. You may be able to forge links and build on other peoples’ experience, rather than starting from scratch!
If you study something which is controversial or often featured in the media, there may be issues with how your research has been communicated, or mis-communicated, in the past. You will have to take into account that people already have preconceived ideas about what you do.
It would also be very useful to find out background as to the public who are already engaging or engaged with your research topic. For example:
- Are you likely to be dealing with very different experience levels, making it will be difficult to ‘pitch’ at the right level? In which case, you may have to consider different sessions for different interests or otherwise allow for this difference.
- Or will you be dealing with a culturally diverse group? Can you foresee any difficulties for such a group to work together?
TIP: It is very difficult to second guess an audience’s motivations. You should work with the public now, explain your context and let them provide comment and input. This will help you can share their understanding of how they would like to be involved.
This needs some careful thought. Your event will need to be inclusive enough, and engage the right mix of participants, to give you useful and formative outputs.
Good starting points
- Who will be affected by your research (individuals/organisations/groups)
- Who is influential in the community, area or organisations you link with
- Who could be obstructive or opposed to your research
- Who has been involved in your research in the past?
- And who has not been involved (but should have been!)?
TIP: You could identify an initial seed list and then ask them who they think should be involved. This will give your audience some ownership of the event, and help you avoid inadvertent bias or oversight.
- The size of audience should ideally be linked to the purpose, and help you achieve it, rather than just being arbitrary.
- There are often good reasons to include opponents to your research. If they have some ownership of an issue, they may come round to supporting the final outcome… or at least be less likely to try and undermine it!
- Hard to reach groups
- You should try and include all relevant publics in your audience, although it may require more effort and creativity to contact and engage some groups. It will help you get a more balanced overview from your public engagement.
- What’s the benefit for the audience?
- It may be obvious to you what the public will get out of your activity, but it is best to discuss with participants and manage everyone’s motivations and expectations. This is especially important if your research area suffers from an overload of information from many sources, resulting in “fatigue” (e.g. climate change fatigue).
This will bring together your remit, background and audience, to think about how you can achieve your key aims. These will be clear and highly focussed reasons for your public engagement. Purposes should be ‘SMART’ – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and to a Timescale.
I will hold a consultation event at a suitable time, including some key community groups which are very relevant to my research but do not traditionally engage with Higher Education. We will discuss some issues, provide information and try to reach an agreement before September.
This will help me achieve my overall aims of initiating a relationship with a pool of potential research subjects, and improving lifestyles with my research.
Although it is important that you have all the support you need for public engagement, you may not have this from the outset. Sometimes line managers need to see the tangible outcomes of public engagement before they offer full support. The Edinburgh Beltane is here to offer guidance and resources, so please get in touch if you are in this situation.
In an ideal world, you will be fully supported. This means you will be allowed to dedicate time and resources your event deserves, and there will be systems in place to make changes as a result of your public engagement.
Funding is a key issue for public engagement events. We are very keen to emphasise how important it is to include a properly-costed dissemination strategy in funding applications. We can offer advice on how to do this, and also advise on other public engagement funding avenues (including our public engagement challenge, with grants of up to £1500 for events).
That said, we do not wish to deter anyone on the basis of lack of funding. It is possible to do some really interesting public engagement on a shoestring– online being the most obvious way to engage large audiences with minimal budget (for example with a blog or through Vidiowiki). This can help build up an evidence base about how valuable public engagement is, which will in turn garner more support.
Skills: Training and development
The Edinburgh Beltane has a comprehensive training database which will help you identify and build the skills and competencies you need for your activity.
Planning your approach
Now you have of the purpose of your public engagement, and an idea about what type of event- you can plan it!
There are many methods and techniques for engaging the public. Now you have an idea of your aim, audience and what level of participation you need to achieve, you should have an idea of how an event or activity can achieve this.
The following image features some suggested activities, and what level of public participation they are usually suitable for:
Do you have all the necessary skills to manage your chosen public engagement activity? The Edinburgh Beltane training database is a comprehensive resource where you can search for training and personal development courses, based on what type of event you are interested in, or which skills you would like to develop.
Careful budgeting is essential; remember to set aside the time it will take for you and any co-organisers to organise and run this event.
- Communication strategy
You will need to keep communication in mind, to drum up interest in your event and to keep your participants informed and content throughout. It is also important to communicate the follow-up actions so that participants and others are aware of the impact your public engagement has made.
Be realistic- things often take longer than expected. This is especially if you are planning a high-impact event with a high-profile partner, like Edinburgh International Science Festival or Royal Society of Edinburgh. These organisations will often have event programmes set at least 6 months ahead of time.
- Key dates and actions
Key dates should be factored into your planning, for example if there is a final decision to be made which requires public input.
There will probably be lots of practical arrangements involved- seating, catering, audio-visual, user-friendly materials etc.
You should consider your venue carefully: there will be positive and negative potential effects which will affect the process and consequent outcomes. For example, a lot of people will find events held at a university quite an unusual environment- they may find it difficult to find rooms and feel intimidated.
This aspect can be out-sourced, but it will feed back into the budget. At high-profile venues, a lot of the organisation will be taken care of in-house. However, this comes with a price tag! Conversely, you can find excellent free venues- but you will probably end up doing most of the legwork!
- Follow up
We place a key focus on review and evaluation as an integral part of the event design process. You need to think how you will evaluate if the event is successful, how this will feed into your research and how you will report the final outcomes back to the participants (and also to others).
- Other things to consider
We couldn’t hope to cover all the aspects of event design here! But bear in mind there will be a host of practical constraints specific to your event, which you should brainstorm and plan for. Remember to be particularly aware of child protection, minority groups and disability issues.
We consider a robust evaluation process to be an essential and integral part of effective public engagement. This will ensure that the learning is gathered, and your plan is flexible enough to cope with any unforeseen challenges.
Evaluation should be qualitative and quantitative, in order to capture all the intangible outcomes- such as greater understanding and desire to get more involved.
Things to bear in mind for a final evaluation
- Did you meet your own key aims?
- Did it meet the expectations and requirements of your audience?
- Did you maintain standards of best practice?
- Was the engagement method or technique you used appropriate?
- Did you find the level and range of responses useful and formative?
- Were the outcomes of your event dealt with effectively?