A shift from a focus on traditional forms of public engagement to a concern with ‘creating publics’ draws attention to issues of collaboration and partnership working – issues increasingly central to academic research and research management. The workshop following the launch of the ‘Creating Publics’ project enabled a focus on issues which researchers face in their collaborative work: work that offers new opportunities and forms of creativity but that presents a number of problems and issues. Such issues, it seems, are rarely included in staff development programmes or mentoring practice. Yet they are crucial to both institutional and personal development, and there was clearly an appetite to share experiences and to promote further engagement with the issues at stake.
The issues raised included:
– collaboration within research teams; how to handle the emotional and relational labour involved, how to manage tensions and conflict, how to work across difference, how to balance a focus on collaboration and inclusion with a more task centred focus on delivering outputs under time constraints
– stakeholder involvement: how to engage stakeholders, and to manage different stakeholder relationships; how to contain extensive demands of stakeholders on the time and resources of research teams; how to manage boundaries where there are moves towards the ‘coproduction’ of research questions and/or findings;
– engagements with government and policymakers: how to respond to demands for simple messages that misrepresent or decontextualise the research findings; how to establish the legitimacy and authority of the research; how to manage disjunctures of time frames between policy and research cycles;
– dealing with competing performance pressures; how the development of external relationships and collaborative ventures intersects with individual performance measures; how to balance the goal of promoting collaborative and inclusive relationships with the need or individual research outputs (needed for promotion and REF)
– learning from other experiences: the possibility of – and problems associated with – learning from social and political movements who have experienced the problems associated with moves towards more consensual styles of decision making; or learning from practitioners skilled in the art of ‘partnership’ working.
This agenda suggests some of the richness and the difficulty associated with the current turn to more collaborative research and the strengthening of the impetus towards public engagement. The ‘creating publics’ project brings such issues to the fore and opens them out for further discussion and development. The project offers a rich environment for new forms of theoretical development around ‘public making’ and the role of the academy; but it also raises a series of practical issues of concern for those seeking to extend the reach and impact of their research.
Janet Newman is Emeritus Professor of Social Policy and Criminology at The Open University.