On 20th June 2012, the CONSIDER project held a workshop in Porto, in collaboration with the UDIPSS conference "Unpacking the Future - Pointing the North Towards Social Innovation".
The workshop in Porto aimed to investigate what CSOs need in order to participate in research, and collected feedback on the CONSIDER project's current research plans. It enabled participating stakeholders to give their views on the research process and the main issues they experienced when involved in research projects, as well as an opportunity to share their expectations for future projects.
The event included a wide range of participants representing 28 institutions: from CSOs to researchers to representatives of the private sector. Following a short presentation introducing the CONSIDER project, the participants split into five smaller groups of 5-6 people in order to have an open discussion on three key points:
1. Participants’ experience with research
2. Barriers and enablers for CSO involvement in research
3. Recommendations for the CONSIDER project
The smaller group discussions allowed for an active engagement of all participants and the collection of a wide range of views and comment. Yet, despite their independent work, there was a remarkably clear emergence of many common points across the groups.
Across all of the workshop sessions there was a high interest in CSOs participating in research, and the participants were keen to explore the ways in which could be facilitated more effectively, rather than focus solely on the barriers to participation.
A highly relevant enabler is the presence of shared values: both between CSOs and researchers, and between CSOs and a given project. All participants agreed that the collaboration between researchers and CSOs is most efficient when the research focuses on tackling and solving social problems and is based on shared values. Furthermore, the group highlighted that CSOs are motivated to participate in research when the research matches the mission of the organisation and when the findings are transferable to other projects. Action research projects, in which the research occurs simultaneously with practical action to solve a given problem, were considered particularly important for CSOs’ involvement in research.
Communication was also cited as one of the main enablers of CSO involvement in research. In cases where there is good and clear communication, CSOs are able to be involved in projects and to contribute efficiently. This is very much connected to the fact that the CSOs’ main research-related strengths are the specific skills and ground level expertise that they can offer, as well as the relevant contacts that they have. A clear communication between CSOs and researchers can ensure that such strengths are utilised in the most beneficial ways for the project(s).
Conversely, ineffective communication between researchers and CSOs also appears to cause problems for CSOs wishing to be involved. The example of a clash between university/researcher and CSO cultures was brought up by the participants, who explained that a resolution of this clash would require simplified language and a third party in charge of coordination, due to different views and understandings between CSOs and researchers.
Bureaucracy, lack of funding, and time constraints were considered the most obstructive barriers for CSO involvement in research. Many participants expressed a discontent that the majority of time in research is spent dealing with bureaucratic administrative procedures. Participants further highlighted the time factor as a particular concern for CSOs: research is often time-consuming, as a lengthy process is required to produce academically robust results, and consequently these results are often no longer valid or relevant to CSOs by the time they are published. CSOs often do not have the capacity, in terms of both resources and people, to carry out such time-consuming projects. Furthermore, many CSOs are discouraged from participating in research as they feel that, despite the time required of them personally, they rarely get the deserved recognition as it is mainly the researchers who are able to claim credit and association with a project.
Funding issues emerged as the other major barrier for civil society organisations’ research involvement. In particular the workshop participants perceived a bias favouring universities; research calls tend to be open predominantly to universities and researchers, thus CSOs can feel excluded. Often this causes frustration amongst local organisations, which in certain cases might be able to provide a better insight or more efficient methodology. Some workshop participants expressed a view that, at times, researchers intentionally decide not to include CSOs as formal partners within project proposals as they believe that the inclusion of CSOs could prevent the researchers from winning the project. Yet the informal involvement of CSOs in research frequently means that, although involved in the work of the project, they do not receive any funding - a similar issue to the point which arose regarding recognition. A further concern relating to this topic was that academic research interests are frequently based on current availability of funding, rather than specific longer-term objectives.
The issue of legitimacy
The underlying issue linking the above concerns was a perceived lack of legitimacy of CSOs in research. Some participants expressed an opinion that universities and researchers often see CSOs as unreliable partners, although occasionally the CSOs have themselves found researchers to be unreliable. The workshop participants did however report that the situation has recently been changing. A fear of competition further complicates the involvement of CSOs, with individuals expressing caution in becoming involved due to the risk that comes with sharing their expertise and findings and the lack of recognition received when they are used.
Pilot projects, an innovative, feasible way
An interesting point was raised in regards to pilot projects. Pilot projects were considered by the participants to be new and innovative, and as a result, they instigate a willingness to take risks; the success of such projects would be potentially very large, whereas their testing nature means that failure would have less negative connotations than usual. Consequently, the involvement of civil society in such projects becomes more likely, viewed as low risk due to the lower levels of expectation.
The group discussions provided important feedback to the CONSIDER consortium, both with regards to the implementation of the project and highlighting important points to focus on. Amongst these, the participants mentioned the need for the project to focus not only on universities but also on research institutes. The issue of identity was also raised both in reference to the different national definitions of civil society in Europe and to the identity of researchers who now work for a CSO and vice versa. Feedback for the CONSIDER team focuses predominantly on the necessity for practical recommendations, which would be useful, easy to implement and with significant impact.