Co-operation can enable people to play a key role in research

With changes to the political, social, economic and technological landscape, the idea of public involvement is regaining interest. Along with this trend, a more co-operative and collaborative approach...

With changes to the political, social, economic and technological landscape, the idea of public involvement is regaining interest. Along with this trend, a more co-operative and collaborative approach to research is also being re-explored.

Professor Keri Facer of the University of Bristol calls the phenomenon the “return on the public”.

A keynote speaker at the Co-operative Education and Research Conference in Manchester, Prof Facer sees the current appetite for public engagement as a double-edged sword.

While collaboration can be used to buttress the power of elite interests and capture public institutions, real participation can be used to challenge, reimagine and reinvigorate institutions, she said.

With these changes under way, the education and learning sector is also exploring how to engage with the public in research to find solutions for new challenges.

Prof Facer is a leadership fellow for the Connected Communities Programme, a nationwide, 300-project research programme facilitating collaborative research between universities and civil society and community organisations.

The Connected Communities programme is led by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, a public body sponsored by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) along with other UK Research Councils.

Prof Facer explained how American economist Elinor Ostrom had developed the idea of co-production in the delivery of public services in the 1970s, with organisations, local government and people co-operating for the best outcomes.

As part of her work for the Connected Communities Programme, Prof Facer surveyed participants’s views on the collaborative working process.

Related: Why co-operation is good for business and society

Based on the survey, Prof Facer suggested 10 key points that research organisations, including those involved in co-operative education, could take into account when seeking to reframe their relationship with the public.

  1. Not everyone has the same capacity to collaborate or participate. When institutions open up to the public, not everyone can respond in the same way.
  2. Social networks shape access to participation. Early stage genesis of projects emerge from social networks and existing networks.
  3. Collaboration is driven by different motivations
  4. There are fundamentally different traditions of collaboration. These different traditions require institutions to do different things.
  5. Collaboration requires recognition and working through the risk of tokenism.
  6. Not all collaborations are equal.

Different models exist such as Divide and conquer – divide what you are doing and do not engage much; Relation expertise – try to see the same issue from different perspectives; Remake identities – learning from each other’s skills; Colonisation and confusion – where people are not listening to someone else’s expertise and lack respect for each other their knowledge and expertise.

  1. When collaboration works you get different sorts of roles and relationships emerging like the facilitator, the accountant, the broker, the designer, the nurturer, the diplomat, etc.
  2. Money can be a mixed blessing. You need money to demonstrate research practices and you cannot involve communities in projects without money to cover basic expenses like bus fares and childcare. However, most funding is received on a project basis and there are real problems with this short-term projects, this disrupts the collaborative relationship between organisations. Money can also change the friendly initial relationship into a contractual one. Resources should be for partnerships and relationships rather than projects.
  3. Time is essential. When time is not enough there are no resources for people and the false model of colonisation and confusion can emerge.
  4. The key legacy of collaboration is embodied in people.

Prof Facer’s research has also shown that participation produces new products, helps develop people’s skills and leads to the emergence of new relationships and concepts. According to the responses to her survey, the collaborative approach to research also builds a much more open model of research, allowing more freedom to researchers, who do not have to specify what the research is about, which means the research is continually evolving.

“This sort of research is a method like any other. It can be done poorly or it can be done well. I have seen it done really disastrously and I have seen it done brilliantly. The real issue is, is it done with skill and care and and understanding that there are choices to be made? If you think you can just collaborate with people it probably won’t go well,” she said.

She added that it was important to recognise that there was a long history and tradition of collaborative research, which organisations could learn from.

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