I was lucky enough to be given eight minutes to speak as part of the final plenary at the recent National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE)’s Engage conference. Taking place in Bristol on 4th and 5th December 2019, the theme of this year’s event was “Disruption”.

The event started as it meant to go on with an incredibly powerful opening plenary delivered by Sophie Duncan (NCCPE’s Director – Business and Strategy) which highlighted what a terrible state the UK is currently in politically, and what a terrible state the whole world is in environmentally.

Day one of the conference ended with a brilliant plenary from Julia Unwin (Chair of the Independent Inquiry on the Future of Civil Society) who cautioned us against reading too much into whatever the latest “fad” is, or as she put it so eloquently “the latest spray on brand”.

The final plenary on day two of the conference was entitled “Reflections and futures – engagement in changing times”. It was an opportunity for the NCCPE, me, and two other excellent speakers (Joy Zhang – Senior Lecturer in Sociology, University of Kent, and Julian Baggini – Royal Institute of Philosophy) to reflect on the conference as a whole.

I was asked after the event if I would share what I said somewhere, and as I prepare for talks by writing out the whole script in advance, turning it into a blog post was not hard to do.

I wanted to echo the conference’s honest tone, so my talk was personal, but I hope it resonated with people. Here is what I said…

“I’ve been asked to reflect a bit on the conference, and say something about the future I want to see for engagement.

One of the things I wanted to reflect on the most here is how different some of the sessions and speakers at this year’s conference have felt. It feels like we are finally talking about things in a more honest way, and that feels incredibly liberating!

I’ve been working in communications and public engagement for the past 12 years. And I have seen nowhere near as much change as I should have done after 10 years of significant investment in public engagement.

I’ve seen people change, but I haven’t seen organisations change very much at all.

Universities are shaped by their people, but this is both a good thing and a bad thing. A bad thing because when people move on and senior leadership changes, you can find yourself back at square one. In order for a publicly engaged university to exist, it needs more than its public engagement team to be working towards these priorities. It’s amazing how quickly you can be back at the beginning.

I will admit over the past few years there have been times where I have dreamed of having a different career completely. I’ve often joked that I’d like to be a florist, but as I have no skills in that area it seems unlikely I’ll be able to make that career move in the near future.

But, why was I so unhappy? I have always been incredibly passionate about what public engagement is trying to do, so surely this is the perfect career for me?

Research is so often painfully disconnected from the people and places most impacted by it, and I think that is fundamentally a bad thing. I think the old fashioned notion that the only knowledge of value sits in academic journals is flawed. I think researchers sitting in isolation in “Ivory Towers” is bad for everyone, sometimes especially the researchers.

I had also always felt like I had a good idea about what public engagement is, which is a good thing, considering it’s my job to create environments for it to happen. However, I was increasingly wondering whether I’ve somehow misunderstood the whole concept. Are public engagement and outreach the same thing? Is it science communication, because let’s face it, it sometimes feels like the sector forgets that other subjects exist.

I will never forget my disappointment in reading a draft plan for a STEAM garden. I was imagining traction engines, while they actually meant Science Technology Engineering Arts and Maths…

Whilst I agree getting caught up in definitions is almost universally unhelpful. I had started to wonder if there was something fundamentally wrong with this whole sector, which no amount of me working harder, staying later in the office, and working myself to exhaustion would fix.

Had we taken something which I thought was supposed to be about research governance, and made it “interactive communication”? Advertising for universities? Corporate social responsibility? Or whatever the latest spray on brand is…

More than anything, I wanted some of my early career enthusiasm back. Working in this sector seemed to have robbed me of that, as for every exciting, meaningful project I saw, there were a dozen pointless ones, leaving me a jaded husk of a human.

Now, I’ve always been hard to please. Those of you know have been on funding panels with me will recognise this fact. In fact, when I left secondary school and my friends signed and annotated my shirt, as was the tradition, they wrote “She came, She saw, She wasn’t impressed” across the back.

But it’s not just me, I’ve seen people leave this sector as they feel jaded and not listened to and increasingly unhappy with the quality of the work they see around them. I’m not ready to quit, but I am frustrated. This work is important, and the sector we have built to do it doesn’t seem fit for purpose.

I’ve also seen colleagues leave due to endless short term contracts, because let’s face it, a lot of universities like public engagement when it’s paid for by someone else’s money, but tend to stop liking it when that money runs out and they have to put their hand in their pocket. The sometimes unpleasant working culture within universities, and a lack of career progression all contribute to this disturbing sensation that public engagement might not be a sustainable, healthy long-term career plan.

I saw, and I felt, a near-permanent state of fear amongst my colleagues working across public engagement. We all seemed terrified that if we let the mask slip, and admitted everything wasn’t perfect, the whole sector would crumble. Conversations about difficult work situations, poorly planned projects, and bullying from more senior colleagues all seem to happen in private. In conversations snatched between conference sessions, or on social media, or in the pub, while you both stare intently into a double whisky and question your life choices.

This year’s conference has felt different, and I’ve found that incredibly motivating! I’m not leaving feeling isolated and alone, and like maybe I am missing something.

So, why didn’t I sign up for evening courses in floristry and just walk away from this whole public engagement malarkey? I had good friends, and good colleagues, and was given some very good advice, some of which I want to share with you now – especially in response to Sophie’s incredibly powerful opening plenary.

When the big picture is too awful, too overwhelming, focus on a series of small pictures. I started focusing on the change I could make. I put even more effort into supporting people. Because the people who work in this sector, you – you are amazing.

I have mentored lots of early career public engagement professionals over the past few years. And unfortunately, there is a clear pattern to the meetings we have over the course of the first year or so.

At around the same point, usually meeting three, there is the time where I ask how things are going and I see their bottom lip go, and the tears start. They are drowning, they have no support, people talk down to them all the time and dismiss their work, their manager doesn’t know what they do. They are alone. They start questioning their own ability.

Now, you could say – How is this different to other sectors? Maybe it’s not – but if I worked in those sectors I’d hate it there too.

The roles we create in this sector are not always good. The expectations we set are not always right, and our criteria for success can sometimes be wrong.

What do I mean? Well. I had this realisation when interviewing people for public engagement posts, which I’ve done a lot over the past eight years or so. What I saw there was a stream of often young, often women, answering my questions about their influencing skills with examples of how they had managed to get a more senior, usually older, usually male, colleague to take on their ideas as their own, and take them forward, and take the credit for them.

That’s awful.

I would have been one of those young women, I almost certainly gave similar examples when I started out.

That’s not OK.

We need to stop hiding. If we want our skills to be recognised, I’m not sure we need accreditation or special badges which say we are great. People need to see the extent of the work we do. We need to stop hiding the amount of hard work it can take to engage successfully for fear of putting people off from getting involved.

I’ve been thinking a lot over the past few days of something Charlotte Thorley, a brilliant leader in the public engagement sphere who I know is known to a lot of you, said on Twitter recently. We talk about people as “catalysts” for engagement, but they are more often used as reagents. Our universities and funders may not actually care if we get burnt out and used up in the process.

The churn in the sector isn’t the only reason we haven’t moved on as much as we should have done in 10 years, but it’s one of the reasons, and I want to do more to help fix that.

So my final comment is a plea to you all to support each other. Look after yourself. Don’t burn out. You are worth more than that. I want the future of public engagement to include you. I don’t want to be part of a sector which sucks people in because they care, uses them up, and then spits them out again into alternative careers.

Thank you.”


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