Who are the public in public engagement (and does it matter)?

Posted in: Thinkpiece

Since coming back to the University of Bath from an event a couple of weeks ago I have been mulling over some topics that were discussed and one that got me thinking the most was around publics: who are they, how do we define them and ultimately does it matter?

Understanding how we define public groups

Over the course of the event we discussed one of my favourite topics which I don't think, as a sector, we interrogate nearly enough: who are the public are when we are talking about public engagement with research.

The conversation featured advice from two funders. These are funders who are passionate about public engagement – they take it seriously and put their money where their mouth is. Both funders described publics (note the plural) in ways I would agree with: targeted, differentiated and defined by interest (rather than demography).

However, in the next breath, we were then told that to be successful in applying for funding we should not be TOO specific and that we must not be exclusive.

This worried me.

It’s fantastic that the concept of segmentation (not a nice term, but it’s what we have) has taken root. However, a fundamental part of segmentation is that you will, by definition, not reach everyone. I think the idea of clearly identifying the public group you want to work with makes intuitive sense: you can’t reach everyone with a single intervention. Yet it feels like we are less comfortable with the resultant exclusion that this approach then leaves us with.

When I was looking at segmentation for my PhD work over 10 years ago (yikes) the theoretical models I drew on came from the Public Relations field. Those models were developed to differentiate and prioritise who organisations should work with and in what way. The models also helped identify those groups who you needn’t reach out to. This way of thinking supported the real-world situation of finite resources (time, money and skill) and acknowledged that there are some topics that are not relevant for some societal groups.

Targeting vs. exclusion

This prioritisation of resources to the point of not involving some parts of society seems to make us in the public engagement field feel uncomfortable and I don’t know why.

Could it be a left-over feature of the concept of there being a general public and we are reluctant to completely let this go? We are all, without doubt, members of “the public” at many points in our days, weeks and lives; but we are not a homogeneous group. So I think this is understandable even it if is wrong!

Or, are we reluctant to let go of “reach” as being an indicator of success? We know that the number of people involved in a public engagement with research activity should be proportionate to the intervention and that more doesn’t equate to better. But when more people get involved than planned, we are all still secretly pleased aren’t we?

Alternatively, does the discomfort around excluding some parts of society from our interventions come from the idea that public services are meant to benefit everyone? But is public engagement with research really a public service in same way that education, health care, social services and the judiciary are?

I don’t know the answer as to why we embrace targeting but reject exclusion. But I do wonder if it’s indicative of the complex range of drivers that underpin individual and collective public engagement with research. If we really value non-academic voices and experience in the academic research environment, then we MUST be targeted and strategic (and yes, exclusive) about who we bring into research projects.

If we are really thinking that research (and the associated public engagement) is a public service then can our current approach work? I’m not convinced that we can rely on individual researchers (or research groups) interacting with their key public groups to facilitate societal contributions to research in a way that can genuinely be called a public service.

Does all this matter?

Yes, I think it does. The persistent lack of clarity about why we do public engagement with research fundamentally works against us. It makes it hard to make the case at an individual and collective level, to evidence success, prioritise resources, to deliver effective work, to develop relevant skills, to work collaboratively and (going back to our funders’ comments that prompted this piece) secure funding to do this work that we all think is important (even if we do think it’s important for different reasons).

Want to find out more? Clive Barnett and Nick Mahoney wrote this synthesis in 2011 which covers this topic in a lot more depth than I can here.

Helen Featherstone is Head of Public Engagement at the University of Bath

Posted in: Thinkpiece


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