Further insights from our work with the British Science Association

In January we shared the framework we’ve developed alongside the British Science Association (BSA), exploring what a healthy local system for public engagement looks like, and wrote about our work with them to develop a funding programme to support this. In this second blog, we share some insights from putting the framework into practice through supporting local partners to develop collaborative approaches as part of the new infrastructure funding programme from the BSA’s Ideas Fund.

Using the framework as a diagnostic tool and prompt, the BSA wanted to test its hypothesis that intervening to strengthen underlying local infrastructure (beyond only investing in one-off projects) will lead to more meaningful and sustainable public engagement. The BSA will never be able to fund this kind of work in all areas of the UK, so it aims to test out an approach to funding infrastructure in a number of local places and share its learning to influence wider change.

In March 2023, the BSA awarded funding to three projects focused on developing ‘healthier’ local systems for public engagement. Collaborate was delighted to support the application process for this funding round, working with places to apply the framework in their context and develop collaborative approaches. In the spirit of ‘working out loud’ and sharing as we go to help inform wider practice, below we share some key insights from the process so far.

During the autumn and winter of 2022, Collaborate and the BSA worked with representatives from universities and community groups in North West Northern Ireland, Hull and the Highlands & Islands of Scotland to develop ideas for applications of up to £100,000 of infrastructure funding in each place. 

We held two workshops with each place. The first used the framework to set the scene and initiate conversations about the strengths and challenges in each local system and opportunities to intervene differently. The second started to prioritise and further develop the ideas. We then held a peer-learning session with participants from all three places to share ideas for inspiration, iteration and further development. In mid-December, places submitted outline funding applications to the BSA with the intention that the work would begin in spring 2023 and continue over 18 months.

We have already learnt a lot through this experimental approach. Our key reflections include:

  • To create sustainable change, how these initiatives are developed is arguably as important as what they do

From the outset, the BSA wanted not just to fund different things (infrastructure for system change as well as projects), but for the funding process itself to be different. As we’ve worked with the places to develop their applications and continue to support them, we’ve tested an approach that is collaborative, system-wide, and learning focused. The goal is to help local partnerships develop and model a new way of working that can influence wider lasting change in their places.

Rather than encouraging local groups to compete against each other for the limited funding available, the approach we developed with the BSA invited collaborative applications, and provided space and support to develop these partnerships, drawing in different perspectives from across the system. We also deliberately built in moments for reflection and learning, and kept an open dialogue about how the application process would develop, following the needs of the places rather than a prescribed, fixed approach.

As the places begin their next phase of work together, we’re encouraging them to purposefully focus on how they build their partnerships and establish the conditions for lasting collaboration, alongside the activities they want to deliver.

  • Funding in this way requires a balance of emergence with structure

When working in complexity, we must accept that we cannot know everything at the outset, and be prepared to uncover new insights and adapt as we go. 

The application process purposefully supported an adaptive approach, and our role was to help the BSA and applicants to embrace this, while also providing enough scaffolding to help everyone find their way through this emergent process (which could potentially have felt quite destabilising in comparison to a more rigid traditional funding approach). One example of balancing emergence and structure is how we used the framework in the conversations with the places. By setting out the different themes and indicators we’d hope to see in a healthy system, we were able to provide more clarity on what this quite intangible concept could mean in practice, and help the places to see the interconnectedness between different actors and factors. The framework was always intended as a guide and prompt rather than prescriptive criteria for what funding applications must do. The framework can be applied flexibly in different local contexts, and we intend to refine the framework itself based on learning from the places over the coming eighteen months.

We have also encouraged an emergent approach to how projects plan their delivery approach. Applicants were not expected to submit a final, polished product, but invited to share their vision for the change they want to see, the shifts needed to help enable this, and the kinds of activities that might contribute.

 As it is not possible to predict the specific outcomes that can be achieved in the delivery period, we asked applicants to share their approach to embedding learning in the work and the questions they would explore. The BSA are committed to maintaining an open dialogue and flexibility with the partners about how their plans might change over time, particularly as contexts change and new opportunities and partners emerge.

  • With the right mindset and trust, it’s possible to go a long way in a short space of time

The BSA has been able to ‘put its money where its mouth is’ and, with the support of Wellcome (the funders of the Ideas Fund), has had the freedom to do grantmaking differently. While we recognise that it is not always possible for others to be so flexible, this work demonstrates what can be achieved when the will and commitment is there. We’ve been impressed by how the BSA has embraced a different mindset and shown the commitment and willingness to challenge traditional grantmaking practice through a shift away from control, compliance and funding individual organisations; to fostering genuine partnership and providing the flexibility for ongoing learning. This has required a humility which honours the overall goals of the Ideas Fund to challenge typical power dynamics between funders, universities and community groups.

Likewise, the places we’ve been working with have embraced the opportunity to do something different, and committed their time and energies to one another and to the process. As is so often the case, trusted relationships have been a crucial foundation. The history of working together to support The Ideas Fund projects funded in these locations has helped. That work has created shared experiences and connections between community groups and researchers/universities, and also built trust in the BSA’s role as a convener and their intention to work in a different way. 

While other places may not have the benefit of this history, it is never too soon to start building relationships and open a conversation about opportunities for more collaborative, deep-rooted change. We hope the framework might provide a useful discussion starter.

Over the next 18 months, the places will begin work on their ideas and we’ll be playing a supporting role to them and the BSA as a learning partner. This will include creating spaces for shared learning and peer support within and across the projects, and continuing to work with the BSA to share learning externally to influence wider practice.

We look forward to sharing more insights from this work as it emerges, through blogs and learning resources as well as external events. If you’d like to hear more about this work or the framework please contact Ellen Care at Collaborate or Chris Manion at the BSA.

This blog is part two of a series. You can read part one, three and four here:

Part one: Beyond project funding: how can funders nurture healthy systems?

Part three: Nurturing a healthy system: Following where the energy goes

Part four: Building infrastructure to empower communities: Principles for a new approach to community research ethics