Dr. Nick Mahony is an independent researcher, currently leading the development of a new festival of democracy called DemFest 2016, with the Raymond Williams Foundation. Alongside working on other public engagement related projects, Nick is also lead tutor on a new PhD methods training module that looks at the problems and possibilities of participation in research. Until last year, Nick was Research Fellow at the Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance at the Open University, where between 2012-15 he led the Creating Publics project and Co-directed the Publics Research Programme.
A new role
A few years after being awarded my PhD, I won a Research Fellowship grant. This was my second academic job and my task was to design a new set of resources to assist researchers looking to approach their engagement activities from the perspective of the public.
There were two aims: the new resource would need to support conceptual thinking while also encouraging researchers to consider the practicalities of how to design engagement activities in public-centric ways.
I began with a few initial ideas:
Perhaps the resource could be a new directory that brings together pre-existing engagement techniques and offers guidance on how researchers can involve the public?
Maybe a set of engagement case studies might be more useful, especially if this would help researchers reflect on other projects and their relative success?
Then I had the idea for a new engagement manifesto, I imagined this could allow me to make the case for engagement as a particular form of activism, geared to public empowerment – might this be more valuable?
Change of tack
Reflecting on these and other ideas, I realized that I needed to be clearer about what I was trying to do. More troublingly, I saw that I didn’t yet have a firm enough grip on what I actually meant by ‘the public’.
So I made up my mind to research the myriad meanings and practice-based dynamics that are in play in settings of public engagement.
This, I decided, could help me to clarify my understanding of what the implications of these meanings and dynamics might be for public engagement with research. I thought I would then also be in a better position to design my new resource.
I set about investigating meanings and dynamics of public engagement in two main ways: by analyzing practice-based initiatives and by investigating the public in theory.
To research the public in practice I compared over 100 engagement initiatives, looking at the ways they addressed, supported and even worked to re-shape the public. Rather than limiting myself to exploring academic settings, the sample I analysed was a cross-section drawn from multiple domains, ranging from social movement activism, to art, design and media.
Then, to look at the public in theory, I explored the literature and the long history of debates that exist on this topic. By reviewing different traditions I sensitised myself to the array of ways this concept has been debated over time.
Translating my research
This process of conceptual and empirical study heightened my awareness of what’s at stake in the question of the public today.
As a result, I could more clearly appreciate the multivalent character of the public and begin to better articulate some of the relationships and dynamics that are evident between different forms of contemporary public engagement practice.
I was now ready to translate what I had learnt from my research into a new set of resources.
The resources I eventually created are introduced in a short pamphlet that is now available as a free download. Key findings from this project have also been written up in more detail in two journal articles, which are currently in press.
One resource that has been created is a new framework, for designing and evaluating engagement from the perspective of the public. The framework features three ways of conceptualizing the public that are particularly relevant to the challenges of public engagement today. By placing these three perspectives into a kind of dynamic tension, the framework encourages researchers to explore what’s at stake in their own context, inviting them to negotiate these differently useful points of view.
The other main resource is a website called Participation Now. This aims to offer researchers a snapshot of some of the most innovative and participative examples of public engagement, sourced from a variety of contemporary domains – not just within academia but also from beyond it too. Developed in collaboration with the web magazine openDemocracy.net, Participation Now also offers a platform for collective conversations – between practitioners and researchers from different domains and backgrounds – who are concerned with the social dynamics, politics and possible futures of this field.
This project taught me that there is currently no single theory of the public, or indeed any one ‘best practice’ approach to public engagement, that will work effectively across all contemporary contexts.
I learnt that a more multi-dimensional, contextual and reflective approach is required, one that acknowledges, from the outset, that the public in public engagement is a complicated, contested and mutable entity.
Renovating the public
But I didn’t just emerge from this project with the sense that the public is a difficult entity to pin down. I also emerged with the sense that the public (like associated conceptions of collectivity, openness, equality, co-operation and fairness) is actually under threat.
The public is under threat from multiple directions, including from the continued intensification of forms of privatization, the increasing encroachment of technocratic forms of managerialism and even from the continued diffusion of the very idea of public engagement – as this idea also often summons up rather under-theorised, de-contextualised and de-politicised forms of the public too.
The question of what is meant by the public in public engagement therefore now not only has conceptual and practical salience but political and social importance too, especially in this context of privatization, technocracy and de-politicisation.
Considerations such as these can easily get drowned out when discussions about public engagement are oriented around the ‘impact’ agenda, or on the ‘reach’ of particular projects.
These considerations can of course also seem rather daunting and potentially demanding, especially in the often rather limited confines of contemporary engagement projects and when time and resources are scarce.
The challenges ahead
But there are nevertheless roles researchers can potentially play, if you wish to approach public engagement from the perspective of the public.
You could decide to advocate for (and demonstrate the possibilities of) more systematic and theoretically informed approaches to public engagement; act as an intermediary between public concerns and institutional capacities; help trial politically promising forms of practice-based experimentation; or even work as a proxy for the kinds of publicly self-organised forms of collectivity that could, in time, lead to the emergence of entirely new forms of the public.
Responding to the question of the public in public engagement, in this context, will be as much about renovating the public as it is about re-negotiating the public in public engagement today. So quite a lot is at stake here.
If you are sympathetic to this argument, then the resources I’ve developed may be of interest to you. If, on the other hand, you prefer to see the public as a stable and unchanging entity – one that already somehow exists, out there, waiting to be engaged – these resources are probably not for you.
Certainly, this work of renovating the public and negotiating public engagement from the perspective of the public is not going to be easy or straightforward. It requires reflective thought, ongoing experimentation and plenty of time. But this is work that thousands of people are already actively involved in, in many different ways, all around the world, so you will not be alone.
I therefore conclude by inviting you to consider what this idea, of engagement from the perspective of the public, summons-up to you?
Can you imagine designing and evaluating your public engagement in ways that are responsive to the contextual challenges touched on here?
If so, your engagement work could not only serve to enhance the public value of your research but could possibly also play a valuable part in the wider and increasingly vital collective project of renovating the public for our times.
Nick ‘s project animated some of the complexity and dynamism of the public in public engagement today, in a context where the public is an increasing fraught and contested entity. To engage and support the public in this context, Nick argues here, we need to forsake the quest for a pre-existing public and technical fixes to the problem of engagement. The emphasis instead, he suggests, should be on negotiating the public in public engagement in contextually sensitive, critical and creative ways. Engagement can then be more public-centric and possibly effective and researchers can then also contribute to the broader and more collective project of renovating the public for our times.
You can contact Nick if you are interested in following up and/or joining in this work on firstname.lastname@example.org.