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Opportunities and challenges

Was the Public Engagement Framework a success?

By Andreae Callanan

The first phase of Memorial’s Public Engagement Framework is complete.

Memorial’s Office of Public Engagement is asking: Was the strategy a success?

From left are Sydney Snow, Peter Parker and Courtney Lucas, who contributed to the Public Engagement Framework evaluation.
Photo: Rich Blekinsopp

The results of a comprehensive evaluation suggest that the framework has made a positive difference in Memorial’s commitment to publicly engaged projects, and in the university’s national standing as a publicly engaged institution.

The evaluation has also helped the Office of Public Engagement identify areas where more work is needed to support Memorial students, faculty and staff in their public engagement activities.

Looking back

The Public Engagement Framework was adopted in 2012–13; it was, and still is, the only senate-approved public engagement strategy in Canada.

Offering a roadmap for Memorial’s interactions with the public, the framework defines public engagement as “collaborations between Memorial and the public that relate to Memorial’s academic mission.”

It also outlines the university’s public engagement vision, values, goals and objectives.

Understanding how well those goals and objectives have been met is a key element of transparency, and is essential to helping shape the next phase of Memorial’s public engagement strategy.

“Memorial is a public university, serving the public good: when it comes to our collaborations with people and organizations outside the university, understanding our strengths and weaknesses is key to getting better,” said Dr. Rob Greenwood, associate vice-president, public engagement and external relations. “As we move into developing the next decade of public engagement at Memorial, an informed perspective is important.”

The evaluation process

The Office of Public Engagement led the evaluation process, but included a broad group of contributors including a group of student employees, including co-operative education students, interns, graduate assistants and employees through the International Student Work Experience Program.

The core team collaborated with Peter Parker, a graduate of Memorial’s Master in Applied Psychological Sciences Program and a former Office of Public Engagement co-operative education student, to establish a program of evaluation.

From there, the office convened a pan-university committee of Memorial students, faculty, staff and public partners to help provide insight into the evaluation questions and methods.

The team used surveys, focus groups and key informant interviews to collect information and assessed a significant amount of secondary data. Mr. Parker and the team worked to compile and interpret the results.

Success and challenges

A circle encloses a statistic :"85% of survey respondents said there is a high need for public engagement at Memorial."So, what did they learn?

“First and foremost, people at Memorial really do care about public engagement,” said Rebecca Cohoe, manager, public engagement. “Of the 600 people who completed our faculty and staff survey, 85 per cent said there is a high need for public engagement at Memorial and 75 per cent said they would like to see more happening. Only two per cent disagreed.”

There is a broad sense that the framework has made a positive impact on public engagement at Memorial.

Of the faculty and staff respondents who offered an opinion, 75 per cent said public engagement has increased since implementation.

Faculty reported that 37 per cent of their research involves public engagement, but their desired amount of public engagement is higher, around 46 per cent.

The difference between actual and desired levels of public engagement is significantly higher in teaching and learning: the desired level of public engagement in teaching is 31 per cent, while only 19 per cent of current teaching and learning activities currently includes public engagement.

The text: Barriers to public engagement at Memorial: Not enough time, lack of support, need more funding, lacking of training/skills, not adequately recognized, as identified by faculty and staff survey respondents" is on a blue background.

When asked about their motivations for doing publicly engaged work, most respondents selected the answers “contribute to community/province” and “sense of moral responsibility.”

This finding suggests that, for many Memorial faculty and staff, public engagement is part of a desire to make a positive change in Newfoundland and Labrador and in the world.

Some respondents noted barriers to greater public engagement activity and expressed concerns about potential negative career impacts.

When asked about the barriers to public engagement at Memorial, the highest-ranked issues were “lack of time” and “lack of support.”

Respondents also cited “lack of recognition” and “not reflected in the promotion and tenure process” as reasons for not being able to meet engagement goals.

When asked how to improve public engagement at Memorial, respondents chose “public engagement recognition in promotion and tenure.”

The view from the outside

Collaboration is the foundation of public engagement, so it was crucial to hear from both sides of Memorial’s public partnerships.

One hundred and thirty public partners from outside the university contributed to the surveys and focus groups. Sixty-eight per cent of these partners noted that they interact with Memorial at least once a year, and 29 per cent work with Memorial on a monthly basis.

The text"83%: Memorial is making a positive difference in NL" is in a blue and yellow circle.Eighty-three per cent of public partners said they believe Memorial is helping make a positive difference in Newfoundland and Labrador. Forty-four per cent said Memorial’s public engagement activities have increased since the framework was implemented.

The same percentage (44 per cent) said that Memorial values public partners more than it did in 2012.

Many comments from public partners emphasized the close link between Memorial and the people and organizations of the province: “As an alumnus and engaged partner with Memorial, I am very proud of the work, the product and the capacity that is developed by Memorial. It is a critical component of our community and its contribution to the public discourse is extremely valuable.”

Others noted positive experiences with community-led projects and Memorial’s key role in the life of Newfoundland and Labrador, including health and education.

Suggested areas for improvement included doing a better job of communicating public engagement opportunities, making it easier for community members to approach the university to work together and reducing red tape for community partners.

Several respondents mentioned the need for “humility” in Memorial’s interactions with the public and that university partners and community partners each bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to partnerships, and both need to be valued and encouraged.

On the national stage

The text "91%: Memorial's level of public engagement is higher than other Canadian institutions" is in a blue and yellow circle.As a final piece of the evaluation process, the assessment team invited public engagement professionals from other universities across Canada to share their impressions of Memorial’s public engagement efforts.

Results of that survey showed that Memorial’s reputation as a leader in public engagement remains strong: 91 per cent of respondents said that Memorial’s level of public engagement is higher than other Canadian institutions. Not a single respondent said it was lower.

When the same question was posed to Memorial faculty and staff, only 17 per cent believed that Memorial’s levels are higher than most Canadian institutions, with 12 per cent saying levels are lower and 53 per cent being unsure.

It’s possible that some of the difference could be related to limited Memorial knowledge of what is happening in public engagement nationally, but it could also speak to an opportunity to do a better job of communicating public engagement supports and successes, internally.

What’s next?

The evaluation has provided a solid foundation for considering the next 10 years of public engagement strategy at Memorial.

“Now that the first phase of the public engagement strategy is over, we need to consider the future,” said Ms. Cohoe. “We have seen a lot of change over the last decade. The new strategy will need to encompass recent developments in both public engagement and higher education, and in our communities, while providing space for the further changes we are sure to see as we move ahead.”

The Office of Public Engagement are in the process of planning a consultation and strategy development phase, which will be launched in the fall.

While some key themes have already emerged, including building better connections between Memorial’s internal public engagement supports, there is still plenty of opportunity for stakeholders to share their priorities.

“While this is a pan-university institutional strategy, its success rests on its relevance to the needs of faculty, staff, students and our community partners,” said Ms. Cohoe. “We’re looking forward to having conversations with all of them as we develop the next steps of Memorial’s public engagement story.”

The full evaluation, including case studies and methodology, are available at the Office of Public Engagement’s evaluation website, along with a shorter highlights report and an interactive online dashboard that lets users break down the data based on specific interests.

Upcoming event

The Office of Public Engagement is hosting an Engage Memorial virtual panel, Was the Public Engagement Framework a Success? Evaluating the Last 10 Years of PE at Memorial, on Tuesday, March 28, at 2 p.m. (NST), featuring faculty, public partners and members of the evaluation committee.

More details and the link to register are available here.

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