How to write an engagement strategy

What university strategies and a psychology experiment from the 1940s have in common

Writing an effective strategy for local engagement is difficult.

Read through the following statements, taken from a UK university’s strategic plan, and see if anything looks familiar:

As a vibrant knowledge hub, we have an important role to play both locally and globally. The university is a large employer and economic contributor in the region.

We aim to build a clear and distinctive reputation for excellence through strategic engagement and communication with our regional, national and international communities.

We will help the region address its challenges and opportunities while incorporating its many possibilities in education and research.

Could this be from your university’s strategic plan or external engagement strategy? I actually lied at the start: these statements aren’t from a single university. They’re a jumbled mix of statements from five universities from across the UK nations, and from various mission groups. But if they look familiar this could be a problem.

A Barnum effect?

Speaking at recent events, I’ve asked the audience – mostly of higher education professionals – whether these statements about engagement could be from their strategic plan. Nearly everyone raises their hand.

This reminds me, perhaps a little uncharitably, of the Barnum effect. Emerging from a series of psychological experiments in the 1940s, the effect involves showing participants – for example, a class of students – an individual personality statement based on a handwriting sample or a piece of written work. Statements include:

  • You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.
  • You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.
  • You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.

Because the assessment statements are so vague, people interpret their own meaning, and the statements become personal to them. Nearly all participants believed their assessment to be uncannily accurate.

Engagement expectations

There is a growing expectation for universities to be regionally engaged, and this follows from a recognition of the role universities can play in their area and with local communities. The interest and enthusiasm around the Civic University Commission is evidence of this.

This local role isn’t new. Many universities have had engagement as a core part of their mission since their founding. But in recent years government has focused on the role of cities and regions in devolved policymaking, as well as the institutions, such as universities, that can help steer this.

As regional plans – from City Deals to Local Industrial Strategies – shape the policy environment university planners need to factor the issue of place more highly. Often, however, the result is strangely place-neutral: a series of engagement strategies and university planning documents that are largely indistinguishable from one another.

Place, positioning and partnerships

There are positives to be drawn from my (admittedly unscientific) scan of university engagement strategies. Many recognise how the local and international activities of universities reinforce each other. Universities are bridges for their towns, cities and regions to reach the world, and this offer to connect the local and the global is made loud and clear.

In my work for the British Council on universities and cities working together on internationalisation, I found that effective planning was built on a deep understanding of place, positioning and partnerships. It is long-term, deliberate and part of a wider vision of the future of the local area. Universities often have a clear sense of their positioning, but articulating this in the context of place and partnerships can be tricky.

University strategies are not the place to detail individual activities and actions. But a greater degree of specificity is often needed, and this is likely to mean dropping some of the broad statements to focus on a few areas of institutional strength, perhaps joining up with other local universities.

Rooting strategies in place, positioning and partnerships is a good start. The Civic University Commission’s progress report notes that measuring civic engagement is not widespread (but does highlight Cardiff University’s use of quantitative and qualitative analysis). Further work on this is also important.

A good incentive to write a long-term strategy (image credit)https://unsplash.com/photos/cKjxGyfNdQc
A good incentive to write a long-term strategy (image credit)

So too is taking a longer-term perspective. Many universities proudly promote their anchor presence in their area, but their plans are often on five or ten-year cycles. The city of Amsterdam has a 200-year strategy. Although this is prompted by climate change (as an official said, “we don’t want to just let the water flow and all have to move to Germany”), thinking about what a university strategy spanning one or two centuries may look like is perhaps a useful exercise.

A test when looking at your university engagement strategy: if you remove your institution’s name, and mix it up in a pot with other anonymised strategies, is it clear which strategy is yours?

This post first appeared on Wonkhe.

Main image credit

Avoiding blunders, splintering and exclusion in smart cities

Any social or cultural disconnect can have serious consequences for city planning

The Future Cities Catapult are hosting an interesting breakfast briefing next week on ‘inadvertent exclusion’ in smart cities. Here’s the pitch:

As more and more smart technologies are incorporated into the fabric of our cities, it has become increasingly pressing to ensure that those technologies reach the audiences they are intended to reach.

This presentation introduces the concept of ‘inadvertent exclusion’, where potential users or consumers of smart city technologies are found not to engage with the possibilities that those smart initiatives can offer. It is argued that this may be the result of a misunderstanding of the importance of social difference in the way that cities work.

The research is based on the ESRC-funded project Smart Cities in the Making: Learning from Milton Keynes. The project asks how people in a smart city engage with smart technologies, and what difference the smart city makes.

These are important questions. They also remind me of two related pieces of work. The first is the notion of ‘splintering urbanism’, whereby urban infrastructure can drive social and spatial inequality. The book is full of examples of both deliberate and inadvertent boundaries:

In Baltimore… [urban geographer] David Harvey notes the paradox that, whilst African American women cross these boundaries daily to clean some of the world’s most famous hospitals (for example Johns Hopkins), they are unable to access health services when they are ill because of a lack of health insurance. Meanwhile “life expectancy in the immediate environs of these internationally renowned hospital facilities is among the lowest in the nation and comparable to many of the poorer countries of the world”.

The second is the 2013 book, The Blunders of our Governments. If you don’t have time to read the book, this review in the Guardian is helpful. It’s worth quoting in full this explanation of how many blunders arise from a disconnect born from ignorance or social and cultural divides:

The causes of the blunders were numerous. In many cases, ministers and their senior officials were simply ignorant – King and Crewe politely call it “cultural disconnect” – of how large sections of the population lived from day to day. The Tories had no inkling that, if sent a poll tax bill of several hundred pounds, some families, and particularly elderly couples, would not be able to pay. “Well, they could always sell a picture,” suggested Nicholas Ridley, the then environment secretary and the son of a viscount, apparently in all seriousness.

But Labour has become almost equally disconnected from real life, with its frontbenchers and advisers increasingly drawn from a cohort that went from school to university (usually Oxbridge) to Westminster thinktank without ever working in a retail store, a hamburger joint or a benefit office. Its tax credits scheme involved paying out weekly or monthly a sum that was determined annually.

Millions of people short of money, many of whom had never previously completed a tax return, had to fill out complex forms about their previous year’s earnings, estimate earnings for the following year and notify the authorities each time their circumstances changed. The scheme, as the head of the Inland Revenue admitted, went “spectacularly wrong”.

This month I begin a tour looking at the role of universities in smart cities in eight European countries, for an exciting research project commissioned by the British Council. One question I’ll be trying to answer is how universities may be able to help prevent blunders, exclusion and splintering in the development of smart cities. If you’re working on smart cities, please get in touch!

(Photo credit)