This case study describes the social science approach (termed Merging Knowledge) utilised to develop the University of Oxford's Concordat action plan. The case details the action plan design and drafting process, which involved participants from across the University, selected to represent the Concordat stakeholder groups and to reflect diversity across disciplines, career stage, ethnicity, and gender.
The University of Oxford has over 5,000 fixed-term research staff, distributed across the University’s four Divisions (Medical Sciences; Mathematical, Physical & Life Sciences; Social Sciences; and Humanities), and Gardens, Libraries & Museums, as well as over 500 fixed-term researchers employed by Colleges and within the Department for Continuing Education.
As implementation of the Researcher Development Concordat is dependent on ideas, engagement and ownership across the university’s entire research community, we sought to embed the perspectives of researchers and those who support them in the design of Oxford’s action plan. There was prior acknowledgement that design by committee would inevitably entail power differences in the ability for stakeholders to contribute equally. We were attracted to adapting a deliberative democracy process that was found to work well in a context with similar structural hierarchies, specifically, research on poverty.
Conducted from June to December 2021, we designed Oxford’s action plan using a social science approach based on deliberative democracy, known as ‘Merging Knowledge’. Reasons for choosing this approach included: enabling the equal participation of key Concordat stakeholders across the University; maximizing insights from Oxford’s diverse research environments; and raising awareness of the Concordat’s aims. Members of the three central committees who govern activity with and for research staff (Consultation Group, Working Group and the Steering Committee) reviewed, improved, and agreed upon the process described below. The Researcher Hub was asked to facilitate the process in coordination with the Academic Advocate for Research Staff.
In phase one of the design process, we formed three peer groups of twelve research staff, academic line managers and professional support staff each. Participants were selected to reflect diversity across disciplines, gender, ethnicity, and career stage. These peer groups met separately in two online workshops to identify major challenges to fulfilling the Concordat’s principles in Oxford and to propose solutions. Miro, an online collaborative whiteboard platform, was chosen to facilitate individual input and collective analysis, to enable asynchronous contributions and to produce a comprehensive, transparent record of the process.
In phase two, four volunteer representatives (one per academic division) from each peer group came together in a final online workshop to review and prioritise actions proposed in previous workshops as a multi-stakeholder group. These actions were turned into a draft meant to capture the key focal areas of concern identified by the peer groups and point to possible solutions, aligning priorities with the Concordat principles.
When planning the design process, it was recognised that an effective, deliverable action plan would need to dovetail with existing University commitments, including Athena Swan, the Race Equality Charter, DORA and the Concordats for Knowledge Exchange and Research Integrity. The facilitators drew on the expertise of researcher development, HR and other professional service colleagues to identify relevant work underway or in planning, and to reflect this in the wording of proposed actions. The need to align with and draw upon existing commitments and ongoing initiatives was a theme that recurred in the online design process - peer group stakeholders drew our attention to activities occurring in various university departments and emphasized that we did not want to ‘re-invent the wheel’ in creating this action plan.
Although it is still early in the process with the action plan not yet implemented, we have received some indications of success in terms of the design process. First, the most obvious example of progress is the successful preparation of an action plan. Furthermore, a consensus emerging from the final multi-stakeholder workshop informed the drafting of an action plan, which was ultimately reviewed by design participants, divisional committees, the three central research staff committees and a small external group of critical friends.
Further, informal feedback from the 36 design participants indicated that they were very appreciative of the opportunity to engage in a structured, facilitated, and participatory process. For the majority, their sustained engagement was greatly enabled by working together online and using Miro. Senior divisional and central colleagues have also recognized the value of this systematic, inclusive process in producing a plan that is clear in its commitments, specifies co-ownership of each action, and provides suggested implementation activities. Thus, the Merging Knowledge approach appears to have been successful in engaging Concordat stakeholders in contributing to institutional change.
We were also happy with the detailed feedback provided by peer group members via email on the initial draft of the action plan. There was a clear desire to ensure the plan was reflective of everyone’s input, regardless of role. This was one of the goals of Merging Knowledge - showing that we all have a role to play in the process, that we all have valid input.
In recruiting people to participate in the peer group workshops, we made sure that invitations were circulated widely to reach all the relevant parties. We also prepared short terms of reference setting out the roles of participants and coordinators to make clear the expectations and time commitments. In each workshop, participants were reminded of the overall design structure/process, the stage we were currently engaged in, and what the next steps were; transparency was important in building trust in the process. We also made clear we were open to feedback throughout the process and responded to individual queries or concerns, sometimes setting up additional meetings if needed.
It is also important to keep each of the peer groups separate in the initial design workshops. Working as peers in mixed-discipline groups minimized the influence of power dynamics and gave participants opportunity to think creatively, produce a range of ideas, and identify the solutions they felt would make the biggest difference to researchers in a context of finite resources. Participants also considered specific commitments made in the Concordat action plans of peer Universities and funders.
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