A case study of the Participation Now project
If you are reading this blog, you’ll no doubt be aware that public engagement is high on the agenda within higher education and many other domains. You’ll also probably be aware that researchers face increasing pressures – from their institutions, funders and colleagues – to engage publics and produce evidence of the ‘impact’ and ‘relevance’ of their research. However, little systematic attention has so far been paid to what precisely is meant by the ‘public’ in public engagement.
What happens if we put the ‘public’ at the centre of our efforts to conceptualise, conduct and evaluate publicly engaged research? This question formed the starting point for a presentation that we gave at the Open University on 9th June as part of the Engaging Research seminar series.
In the presentation, we introduced Participation Now – a web resource, hosted by the Open University’s OpenLearn platform, which aims to support learning, research and public debate about the contemporary field of participatory public engagement. Both a research project about participation and public engagement and itself an experiment in publicly engaged research, Participation Now has two core features: a searchable online collection of over 130 public participation initiatives, and a ‘Comments, debate and analysis’ section, developed in partnership with the online magazine openDemocracy.net, which features short articles from researchers and practitioners who are interested or involved in participation and public engagement.
During the seminar, we asked participants to tell us what they associate with the term ‘public’. Not surprisingly, we got a wide range of responses: ‘Joe Public’, ‘public institutions’, ‘not private’, ‘public policy’, ‘a social collectivity’ – to name a few. The myriad of concepts and social phenomena that people associate with the idea of the public underlines its continued importance, even as it is an ambivalent and notoriously difficult concept to pin down.
As our work with Participation Now progressed over the past year, it became increasingly clear to us that we needed a systematic approach that would allow us to not only analyse what the ‘public’ means in different contexts of participatory public engagement, but also to account for and evaluate our own project. We therefore developed a framework, based on the theoretical literature on the topic of the public, which brings together three key perspectives: calculative perspectives, which see publics as ‘real’, pre-existing entities that can be tracked and represented; normative perspectives, which focus on how publics should be constituted, and their roles and capacities; and emergence-oriented perspectives, which focus on how publics are mediated and emerge in the process of participation and engagement.
In our presentation, we explained how we’ve started to use this framework in two main ways: to analyse the initiatives in the Participation Now collection, and to evaluate Participation Now as a public engagement project. We are currently in the process of writing up this research so that it can be shared with other researchers and practitioners. The framework is intended as a pragmatic tool to help researchers think critically and reflexively about their own commitments and assumptions, and to evaluate their engagement efforts against those assumptions. We very much hope that others will find it useful too, and would welcome any comments and suggestions for how it could be developed.