Friday, 23 July 2010

An evening with the prince of darkness

I don't often get much time for a personal life, instead working late into the evening on vital tasks for Relu (at least that's what I tell our Director) but last night Peter Mandelson was promoting his new book "The Third Man" at the Civic Centre in Newcastle. What spin doctor could resist the opportunity of seeing the master in action? He was being interviewed by Times columnist Phil Collins and it was a smooth double act. That's not surprising, given that this was the final date of a sustantial book tour. I wondered whether the questions and responses were exactly the same at each appearance or whether they agreed just beforehand that they would play the 4 3 2 1 - or the 8 5 9 0 - (as you can see, I know nothing about football). Either way, I didn't feel we learned anything new about the New Labour project. Perhaps it has all been told, but I had hoped we might find out more about what makes Peter Mandelson tick. He cast himself very much in the role of kingmaker and it will be interesting to see whether Tony Blair and Gordon Brown will produce accounts that substantiate this. But, whatever the degree of truth in the telling, I would like to have known whether he was content with the role. Has he never hankered to be an acknowledged leader, rather than a power behind the throne? Mandelson fulfilling the ambition of his initials is an unlikely picture for most of us, but how does he feel about that public and media reaction? He wasn't telling. It was a polished performance but he we didn't see below the veneer. I suspect the book is equally circumspect so I think I will wait for the paperback edition before I buy it.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Mind your language

Feedback from stakeholders attending the launch has been very helpful. They conveyed with great clarity their desire for short, sharp messages in plain English. They want some communications that draw on the common themes across the set of projects and perhaps a Relu briefing paper, akin to the ones we have produced on land use and the Water Framework Directive, would go some way to meet that need. Involving stakeholders at the very beginning of research is a popular move - and this event is a good example of how we try to achieve that. It seems to have been a useful and an enjoyable experience for people taking part, including those of us working in the Director's Office. The small touches we tried out for the first time - our 'sign-up' books and the prize draw certainly went down a storm. Two lucky winners went away with some highly desirable books and we departed with a sheaf of contact details from people keen to commit to a longer-term relationship with projects and with the Relu programme. Having fun at work - you can't really knock that.

A close relationship with Relu socks

LWEC Head of Directorate Ken O'Callaghan has provided a major highlight of the day with some Relu-style colour-coordinated socks. This is clear evidence of LWEC's commitment to a close relationship with the Relu programme. Ken wants to take the messages from Relu on board - and not just in his sock choices. It could be a very fruitful engagement for both LWEC and Relu.

Engagement in action

Our relu dating sessions are in full swing. People are so keen to grill the researchers that we have had to send our director in to prise them out and send them on for their next "date". One project leader has told me that they have already changed their methodology as a result of discussions with stakeholders this morning. It's all very dynamic and we still have our prize draw at the end of the day.

We know where you live

Hooking stakeholders is what we are about and when they have filled in their sign-up forms we really will know where they live. But it isn't as threatening as it sounds and they might even find they enjoy it and want to come back for more. The message from Kathryn Monk is that stakeholders need short sharp messages. Most are short of time and resources, particularly in the current economic climate, and it's always good to be reminded of that. Research-speak is all very well but it isn't a good communication tool for non-academics. Claire Waterton's presentation was a timely real-life example of research in action. Loweswater has experienced recurring problems with algal bloom and the accepted orthodoxy was that farmers are too blame because of their fertiliser use. A more inclusive approach, which involved a group of researchers and residents under the banner of the Loweswater Care Project, has looked at the problem in a different way and found that, like most things in life, it's actually much more complicated than that. Claire asks whether institutions are equipped for this kind of bottom-up thinking. In most cases probably not, but politically it seems timely, and perhaps the kinds of projects that stakeholders are "dating" today can help.

Stakeholders take centre stage

As we launch the final round of Relu projects the spotlight is, more than ever, on our stakeholders and the part they play in getting research out into the real world. It's encouraging that so many key people have made the effort to come to Manchester for today's event. And I'm particularly looking forward to hearing Kathryn Monk from the Welsh Assembly Government talking about her experience of being a Relu visiting fellow. I'm sure we haven't done everything perfectly, but I think we have got better at this kind of involvement as Relu has moved forward and I hope that we can feed our experience into the wider remit of the Living With Environmental Change programme.