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“What’s going on, I feel a bit wobbly?!”: Crafting power dynamics at a public involvement event

“What’s going on, I feel a bit wobbly?!”: Crafting power dynamics at a public involvement event

01 July 2023

Alex Bevin-Nicholls, Patient and Public Involvement and Engagement Manager, Beauty Tshuma, Public Contributor and Helen Close, Senior Research Methodologist, RDS North East and East Cumbria

Public involvement events can encourage connection, but can sometimes prioritise familiarity for academics over public contributors. We share our experience of an event organised by the Patient and Public Involvement (PPI) and Professional Support teams at the RDS North East and North Cumbria, and make suggestions for shifting power – with the help of a glue stick.

Consider the order of the day

Our event aimed to help public contributors to get involved in research and support teams working towards an NIHR Programme Develop Grant (PDG) on public partnerships. Public contributors were invited to the full day, and researchers to the afternoon. This offered public contributors dedicated time for training and peer mentoring.

Beauty Tshuma is a public contributor

’The event was a huge success for me as it gave me a great feeling that l am part of a community. l felt a sense of belonging. It was a safe space where people could forge their identity and have their views and experience heard. It makes me proud to share with members of my community the positives of being a public contributor.’

Helen Close is a researcher

’Lots of chat in the coffee area on arrival BUT hang on! What’s going on, I feel a bit wobbly?! I generally join events like this at the start, I network, I lead discussions. I’m an experienced researcher so these uncharacteristic nerves make me pause and reflect deeply on how community members might feel joining established research meetings. Do they begin the encounter feeling like an outsider? Do they feel vulnerable, as I do right now?’

Open with a creative activity

We opened the day by inviting public contributors to create a collage about ’me’. People could write, draw, stick – whatever they felt comfortable doing. The collages were displayed as a gallery in the lunch area, for researchers to see on arrival. People shared what they wanted to share about themselves, on their terms. It gave the researchers insight into the rich tapestry of everyone’s experiences – snippets of stories of migration, of recovery, of pride – while giving individuals the privacy and dignity to craft their own narrative on who they are.

Be specific about renumeration and travel

We booked travel for public contributors in advance where possible. We stated exact amounts for renumeration, so people could decide on the best use of their time when balancing work and other commitments.

Beauty highlighted that

‘the consideration to provide transport, lunch and renumeration made it possible for me to attend; it indicates my contribution and time is valued, there is concrete evidence placed on my involvement.’

And don’t be afraid to disrupt!

In round-table discussions, public contributors chose if and where they wanted to share views.

Helen describes the ‘matchmaking’

’Oh, good grief, I have to wait at my table for people to choose if they want to come and discuss! What if no one chooses my table? Again, I wonder how it feels when we give community partners little choice in meeting agendas or membership?’

To help everyone feel comfortable and safe, we shared guidance with research teams on engaging sensitively, and signposted people to relevant support services.

Helen leaned on this guidance

’I don’t know these people, their background knowledge, or research experience so I work hard to ensure I don’t use jargon but also to avoid triggering words to describe my work on trauma and adoption.

The group ask thoughtful, insightful questions, and share reflections that give me a totally different perspective on the work. I realise afterwards that the subtle shift in power dynamic away from ‘researchers know best’ took me out of my comfort zone. It forced me to orientate myself as the outsider asking to be in.’

RDS specialist advisor Toby Brandon talked passionately about co-production being 'disruptive' (positively!).

It struck Helen

That this is what the event had achieved; by disrupting norms on the membership and agenda for the day, there was a shift in who decided what, and where the power lay…public contributors called the shots, and wow did that feel unnerving to this researcher! It was a reminder that the structure of involvement activities matters, as much as what we actually do in the activity. In future, I will be much more conscious of the incredible power of disrupting our closely guarded norms in research!

Find out more about Toby’s work here: Destabilising equilibriums: harnessing the power of disruption in participatory action research — Northumbria University Research Portal

Your local RDS can help you think creatively and practically about embedding principles of public involvement in events while research is being developed! Get in touch to discuss more.

Me collage 2 me collage 3
Who am I collage 4 Who am I collage 1


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