By William L. Allen
When researchers want to engage or work with groups outside universities—especially civil society organisations—what should they consider as part of this process?
Civil society comprises organisations—large and small—that are outside of the public and private sectors. These include non-governmental organisations, charities, or voluntary groups.
Three lessons emerged from asking civil society organisations what they would tell academics who want to work with them:
- researchers should make room for discussions about values (their own as well as those held by others) as they design their projects.
- researchers should consider how their plans can develop skills and confidence in civil society organisation participants as they handle research outputs in the course of their work.
- since all of these activities depend on the unique mixes present in each project, researchers should build time throughout the project to both develop shared goals and reflect on outcomes.
Let’s consider each of these in turn.
Values and missions
Many civil society organisations express some set of core values or guiding principles. These may direct the organisation’s activities, set their priorities, and establish what they will or won’t do to achieve their goals. Sometimes, these organisations talked about their ‘theory of change’ or how they saw what they were doing—campaigning, advocacy, policy analysis—having a positive impact in their field.
So, when researchers hope to engage with these groups, they inevitably will encounter these values and assumptions that will open opportunities, as well as close off some possibilities. Furthermore, researchers themselves should consider their own motivations and principles. These worldviews and missions matter because they can shape the direction and tone of the work that lies ahead.
Confidence with research
Many civil society organisations, especially ones with fewer staff or resources, face difficulties in engaging with technical research outputs—for example, statistical bulletins, publicly available datasets, or complicated methods. Handling and interpreting these sources can be time-consuming and confusing, possibly putting off staff-members who otherwise would be interested in the findings. So, another lesson is that academics should actively find ways to build up participants’ confidence with these kinds of outputs. This helps build a two-way relationship, and both groups benefit.
Time to plan, learn, reflect
Even with a good understanding of all participants’ values, their skills (and gaps in those skills to fill), and the wider context in which these engagements happen, it takes time to transform this understanding into relevant, effective practices that actually work for all involved. The mixes of people, contexts, resources, and motivations change—not only from one project to the next, but possibly within the same project. So, researchers should include time and opportunities throughout the project, but especially at the beginning, to learn from one another and foster shared understandings.
In short, what I’m arguing is that researchers critically reconsider how they build and develop their public engagement with groups outside universities, especially civil society organisations, with an eye towards the roles that less tangible factors like values, confidence, and time play in these processes.
What has your experience been in working with civil society organisations? Do you think these lessons from civil society organisations apply to other groups, such as policymakers, educators or the media? When you’ve engaged with groups outside universities, how did you identify and sustain effective practices?
To find out more:
Allen, W. L. (2016). Factors that impact how civil society intermediaries perceive evidence. Evidence and Policy. Online (DOI): 10.1332/174426416X14538259555968.
This paper was awarded the 2016 Carol Weiss Prize.
Thanks to Evidence and Policy for making this paper free to access until 28 March 2017.
To see all blog posts from the partnership with the journal Evidence and Policy:
Biography: William Allen (@williamlallen) is a Research Officer with the Centre on Migration, Policy, and Society (COMPAS) and The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford. His research examines the links among media, policy-making and public perceptions about migration issues. He is also interested in how people outside university settings engage with migration data, research, and statistics through data visualisation.