Engagement is easy. We are in a fortunate position in CLAHRC West Midlands that there is seemingly a long queue of people keen to talk to us about interesting and exciting health and social care projects. However, there is little point in engagement for engagement’s sake: our resources are too scarce to invest in projects or relationships with little or no return, and so meaningful engagement is much harder.
In putting together our application for hosting an Applied Research Collaboration we were faced with our perennial challenge of who to engage with and how. To do so we began to map our networks (see figure) and quickly realised even the number of NHS organisations (71) was too broad for us to work across in depth, never mind the wide range of academic, social care, voluntary sector and industry partners in the wider landscape beyond.
Our approach has been to work with partners who are keen to work with us; we make no apology for being a coalition of the willing. However, we have worked purposefully to ensure reach across all sectors, actively seeking out collaborators with whom we have had more limited interactions with, but who we know can help deliver the reach we require for research and implementation. For instance, we have one of the best performing and most forward thinking ambulance services in the country, with paramedics working at the very interface between physical and mental health, social care and emergency medicine. Given that we know some of these problems are best addressed upstream, the ambulance service gives us the opportunity to head closer to where the river rises than ever before.
In addition to this, we seek to use overarching bodies to help reach across spaces which are too diffuse and fragmented to allow us to access (such as the voluntary, charitable and third sectors). Even using these we will have to be selective from the 21 which exist when we seek to engage with voluntary groups (for example around priority setting, Public and Community Involvement Engagement and Participation, or co-production). Elsewhere, we utilise networks of networks, for example collaborating with the Membership Innovation Councils of the West Midlands Academic Health Science Network which draw in representatives from a wide cross section of organisations and professions who can then transmit our message to their respective organisations and local networks. Our experience tells us these vicarious contacts can often deliver some of the most useful engagement opportunities.
Finally, we have always been committed within CLAHRC to cross-site working and having our researchers and staff embedded as much as possible within healthcare organisations. This is in part to ensure our research remains grounded within the ‘real world’ of service delivery, rather than the dreaming spires (or concrete and glass tower blocks) of academia. However, we know that regardless of how well you plan and construct your network, some of the best ideas come about through chance encounters and corridor conversations. Nobel prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom, much beloved by the CLAHRC WM team, elegantly described the value of ‘cheap talk’ in relation to collectively owned resources. The visibility of our team can often prompt a brief exchange to rule in or out an idea for CLAHRC where a formal contact or approach might not have been made, making our ‘cheap talk’ meaningful through its context. Perhaps this is how we should see ourselves in CLAHRC West Midlands; as a finite but shared resource to the health and social care organisations within our region.
— Paul Bird, Head of Programmes (engagement)
- RAWM. The West Midlands Voluntary and Community Sector. 2015.
- Rhodes C. Business Statistics. Briefing Paper No. 06152. 2018.
- Ostrom E. Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems. Am Econ Rev. 2010; 100(3): 641-72.