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

No ordinary think tank

Improving economic security is a neglected policy goal. A new initiative in Nottingham seeks to address this

Guest post by Jonathan Schifferes, Associate Director – Public Services and Communities at the RSA

At the dawn of a new parliament – one which will be gripped by negotiating Britain’s international relations while also negotiating new alliances in the House of Commons – the UK gained another think tank last week.

Some political insiders explain that this kind of parliament is likely to sideline the philosophers and reformers with a policy vision for government. Instead the deal-makers, the tactical masters, and the charismatic will be in demand.

In this context, what contribution can a think tank realistically make in the coming year? At the RSA we have been working over the last two years to support the development of a new kind of think tank: one that is focused on the issues of a specific place, within an ‘anchor institution’ that itself shapes the place it is in.

Despite over a decade of devolution and localism in UK politics, there are remarkably few1 civil society organisations that have been established with a place as their focus. We hear frequent complaints of policy silos and politics centred on Westminster, yet most think tanks organise themselves around a policy issue and locate themselves in Westminster.

To generate a richer debate on the social and economic development of the UK’s towns and cities, we need to bridge the gap between the sidelined political philosophy and the daily grind of machine politics. For several years, the RSA has recognised that universities have enormous potential to drive social and economic outcomes in the places they exist – echoing calls for a new breed of ‘civic university’.

RSA Chief Executive Matthew Taylor gave the keynote speech last week, launching Nottingham Civic Exchange, based at Nottingham Trent University (NTU). In partnership with the university leadership, the RSA has helped shape this civic think tank – bringing together many of our Fellows across the region and pooling our research capabilities. NTU views Nottingham Civic Exchange as a key part of delivering its overall strategy.

Going to the heart of what will matter in the lives of one million people across Nottingham and Nottinghamshire, the first programme of Nottingham Civic Exchange is called ‘Out of the Ordinary’. Today, NCE publishes an analysis of ‘ordinary working families’ in the city-region. Rather than simply using economic analysis to fuel Westminster soundbites, and packaging up a new demographic for electoral fodder, this study uncovers important data on Ordinary Working Families in a specific place.

Six million people define themselves as ‘just about managing’

While the struggles of the ‘squeezed middle’, ‘alarm clock Britain’ and households on low and moderate incomes have been discussed for years, what is most remarkable is that nationwide, an estimated six million people define themselves as ‘just about managing’, despite being in households with income above the national median.

In Nottingham, jobs in the caring and leisure industries are more common sources of employment compared to the UK average, and the prevailing low pay of these sectors – where women hold the majority of roles – challenges household finances. The RSA’s Inclusive Growth Commission made the case for place-based industrial strategies, which will be even more crucial as the economic adjustment of leaving the EU approaches, and devolution seems likely to stall. NTU has a particular accountability to families who are ‘just about managing’ – 21% of their 2015 full time undergraduate intake is estimated to come from this background.

Through the summer, the RSA’s ongoing work with NCE will bring a further focus on economic insecurity. We think addressing economic security is a neglected policy goal, which will help bring in to focus the following:

  • The breakdown of traditional class markers. University education has expanded for the recent generation, occupational roles in the workplace are undergoing accelerating change, and home ownership is declining among adults in their 30s establishing families. The financial security previously afforded by a university degree and a white-collar job is eroding, and partly as a consequence owner-occupation is less easily accessible as a form of insurance to protect against unstable or falling incomes. As post-election analysis has suggested, ‘age is the new class’ when it comes to predicting how people align to support political parties.
  • The importance of households as a unit of analysis. Most labour market statistics, for example, look at workers as individuals. Most workers live in households and financial decisions are made in that context: 43% of people have a joint account with their partner. Families and their homes transmit wealth through the economy at a scale which dwarfs the government’s own system of tax-funded pensions. Differences in the experience of insecurity between generations remain relatively under-explored.
  • The importance of looking across the life-course rather than using snapshot data pictures. Looking at longitudinal data across Europe, the lower middle class has the highest rates of transitory poverty; moving in and out of poverty defines their economic status.
  • The economic, fiscal, social and health impacts of subjective (‘felt’) insecurity are just as, if not more potent than, the effects of objective insecurity and material deprivation. This doesn’t mean that addressing material deprivation and poverty should be neglected as policy goals. But it does mean recognising that progressing in the modern workplace brings anxieties and volatility, not necessarily the secure affluence that many crave.
  • Longer-term, a defining characteristic of our era is declining confidence that the future will be better than the past. A survey in 2015 found 25% of UK respondents thought their children would be better off than them; 68% thought they would be worse off.

Nottingham housing

My hypothesis is that in a rich country like the UK, being secure in your economic status matters alongside your absolute affluence. And overall economic inequality matters in part because it exacerbates the experience and perception of insecurity for all in society: greater inequality means there is more to gain and more to lose from a change in their position on the income spectrum.

Beyond the day-to-day parliamentary dealmaking, the election aftermath may prove be one in which austerity plans are dialled down, labour market considerations dominate Brexit talks and vote-winning policies for ‘ordinary working families’ are reconsidered. At the very least, facing a broad range of possible futures makes it a good time to be a nimble think tank.

We need more people to be more involved in policymaking

The next phase of work for Nottingham Civic Exchange will look in more detail at the lives of Ordinary Working Families through research, policy development and working with local communities to identify important issues and come up with recommendations for making changes which have real life impact. They will also link students and staff at the university with wider communities through scholarships, internships, and research projects. In line with the RSA’s wider programme on revitalising economic democracy, we need more people to be more involved in policymaking – in this parliament and beyond – if government and society is to successfully address growing economic insecurity for growing numbers of people. Through partnering with a university committed to improving the city and region it calls home, Nottingham Civic Exchange will tighten the links between policy, action and legitimacy in addressing economic insecurity.

Jonathan is Associate Director – Public Services and Communities at the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce). Read his posts on the RSA website here, or follow him on Twitter here.

This post originally appeared on the RSA blog.

Photos of Nottingham: top jess_k_kent1 on Flickr, middle Mr Thinktank on Flickr.


  1. We are aware of: Newcastle City Futures, Centre for London, Southern Policy Centre, Manchester New Economy. Let us know in the comments of others that we have missed. 

History, policy and development

In policy both the medium and long term are often sacrificed in favour of the short term

Having studied both history and international development, I’m always interested in work that bridges the two. ‘History, Historians and Development Policy’ fits the bill perfectly. One of the many valuable lessons to draw from such work is the importance of taking a long term view:

…history brings a particular kind of perspective to development problems – it is a vantage point for framing and viewing the nature of development which is relatively long term and comparative, while also paying full attention to, and not shying away from, critical issues of power, contestation and conflict. (p.16)

In policy both the medium and long term views are often sacrificed in favour of the short term, for example the apparent willingness to erase the institutional memory on higher education within government. Although this rarely results in colossal blunders, it clearly hinders effective learning and can engender cynicism in those on the receiving end.

At the other end of the spectrum, it is an interesting exercise to free ourselves from the short and medium term and think ultra long term. For example, this piece argues that ‘megacities, not nations, are the world’s dominant, enduring social structures’, and that cities have outlasted all ‘empires and nations over which they have presided’. If we were to frame development in terms of cities (and the towns in their orbit and the spaces that separate them) rather than nations, how would this affect policy? And would, for example, universities in those cities change their strategies? (I’ll look at this next week).

We should welcome historians into policymaking. The excellent History & Policy site attempts to do just that. An essay from 2010 on ‘The ‘Idea of a University’ today’ concludes:

If we seek guidance from the past, it is better to see the ‘idea of the university’ not as a fixed set of characteristics, but as a set of tensions, permanently present, but resolved differently according to time and place. Tensions between teaching and research, and between autonomy and accountability, most obviously. But also between universities’ membership of an international scholarly community, and their role in shaping national cultures and forming national identity; between the transmission of established knowledge, and the search for original truth; between the inevitable connection of universities with the state and the centres of economic and social power, and the need to maintain critical distance; between reproducing the existing occupational structure, and renewing it from below by promoting social mobility; between serving the economy, and providing a space free from immediate utilitarian pressures; between teaching as the encouragement of open and critical attitudes, and society’s expectation that universities will impart qualifications and skills. To come down too heavily on one side of these balances will usually mean that the aims of the university are being simplified and distorted.

Photo Credit: roomman via Compfight cc