Photo copyright of NCCPE. Engage conference, Edinburgh

Our trip north of the wall: reflections on 2018 Engage conference

“Twas the month before Christmas, when all through the UK
The public engagement professionals were coming out to play”

Every November, the UCL Engagement team makes a yearly pilgrimage to the Engage conference, a national gathering of engagement professionals organised by the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE).

It’s a chance for us to take some time out and reflect on our year in engagement, hear from others about their successes and failures, and to think about the future. This year, it was also a great chance for some of the newer members of our team to learn more about the public engagement sector as a whole.

In 2018, the conference was held in Edinburgh over the final two days of November, which was a great setting and meant that there were lots of different faces to the last few years’ location of Bristol. It was also the 10th anniversary of both the NCCPE and much of our public engagement activity, which is highlighted in our series of blog posts on the UCL 10 year public engagement anniversary. As such there was much reflection on what has gone before, and where we might be in another decade.

Here are some team reflections on what we learnt:

Lizzy Baddeley – Project Manager in Community Engagement (East) team

The highlight for me was a really interesting session about ethics and public engagement, co-hosted by Sarah Anderson (University of Edinburgh) and Dawn Smith (Edinburgh Napier University). Ethical engagement is something that our team has been thinking about a lot this year.

In the university sector, research involving living participants or data coming from living participants must gain ethical approval to ensure that the research conforms with general ethical principles and standards. This involves submitting the detail of your research to an ethics committee for review.

Public Engagement activity naturally involves working with living participants, but if this engagement is not directly feeding into research, then where a researcher might need to seek ethical approval for their public engagement project is not clear.

But what if an engagement activity does turn into part of the research further down the line?

Even more importantly, what guidelines should a researcher follow when it comes to thinking about how to ethically run their engagement, regardless of whether there is an official board to review their practice?

And above this, who is saying what is ethical? Whose ethics are we conforming to?

All these questions were raised and as a group we thought about some of the implications of these questions, and possible solutions.

For me, this was a fantastic opportunity to think about how we could involve external communities in the process of setting ethical standards and the review of activities. So watch this space!

Louise Dredge – Public Engagement Manager, School of Laws, Arts and Humanities, Social and Historical Sciences and the Institute of Education

There were a couple of things I experienced that stayed with me. Firstly the discussion and examples in the session between Val McDermid (best-selling crime writer) and Niamh Nic Daéid, (Leverhulme Research Centre for Forensic Science, University of Dundee) on Learning by Narrative and using stories as a means of explaining complex things.

Secondly, in the Facing the Future plenary session, Nike Jonah‘s spoke about Standpoint Theory, an important concept in thinking about where knowledge lies in communities. This theory posits that the further you are from the centre of power, the more you know. As an outsider to the dominant group you have to understand the viewpoints of that group or groups in order to get by, whereas those at centre of power don’t necessarily have to reflect on orinclude more marginalised groups.

Finally, I was very interested in the statistics shared by Jennifer Wallace from Carnegie UK Trust around the trust in academic evidence vs how much it is used. Their evidence suggests that 63% of public policy and practice professionals trust academic evidence, but only 35% actually use it. We need to rethink how we share academic outputs as well as co-create research to allow this figure to change.

Helen Craig – Public Engagement Manager, School of Life and Medical Sciences

I really appreciated the session on training with Helen Featherstone (University of Bath); Heather Lusardi (NCCPE). There were some good discussions on co-producing training with external communities and what that would look like, as well as sharing methods to produce a cohort, which is something we would like to do better.

The Science Theatre session was also very interactive and involved mime, which was a fun change on a Friday afternoon!

Georgia Pitts – Public Engagement Manager, School of Bartlett, Engineering, Mathematical and Physical Sciences

Day two was a bounty of good practice and useful ideas to take forward into what we do here at UCL. I also attended the session run by Helen Featherstone and Heather Lusardi, which was all about public engagement training for researchers. I’m responsible for leading on our training provision this year, so this was top of my list of sessions to attend – and it didn’t disappoint. We talked about how we can ‘practice what we preach’ and co-produce the training we offer with researchers, with a learner-centred model. This would ensure that our training is really hitting the mark in terms of addressing needs in the researcher community. A hot topic of discussion was how we can match skills development through training with opportunities to try out engagement – something which we have been mulling over here for some time, and as a result of this session I’m excited to have some points of reference to draw on. Watch this space!

Briony Fleming – Community Engagement Manager (East)

I personally enjoyed learning a bit more about Affirmative Inquiry – a process of thinking of things in a positive light from delivery to design to destiny, as a tool for both forward planning and strategising. This helps to move you out of situations where people can often default to being negative when reflecting or planning.

I also enjoyed Edinburgh itself, not just because of the food, but because I think it’s good to move away from the south of England where often big conferences are based.

Finally I enjoyed the ‘Public Engagement Card Deck’ creative project planning tool from University of Birmingham – which I have been telling everyone about. It allows you to think about scenario-planning and taking perspective in the form of a game, which allow you to collectively think through some of the challenges and opportunities in a scenario you have been dealt from the pack. It was good at highlighting how often public engagement activities have to respond to things beyond their control! Hopefully we can think about ways to include this in our training

Marie Xypaki – Curriculum and Public Engagement Consultant

I enjoyed the Engaged Learning session delivered by Bristol University and Bristol Green Capital. It was very interesting to see existing approaches to public engagement in university teaching and learning and it seems that there is great work on embedding a real-life challenge to dissertations.

There doesn’t seem to be concrete work around embedding engagement into the whole of the curriculum which gives space for innovation.
It was also very interesting for me, as someone new to my role, to see how diverse the practice around Public Engagement is and that there isn’t one definition or approach. Engage gave me the opportunity to reflect a lot around public engagement and how we deliver it in the sector. I’m still pondering…