Doomed tomatoes and sticky notes: if you want things to be different you have to do things differently - a blog by Leni Sivey

Last updated on 28 Jun 2022

At the launch of Making it easy to do research that people can trust, the new three-year strategy for the Health Research Authority, members of the public and people involved in or impacted by research worked with HRA staff to map out the change we want to see.

In this blog, our Public Involvement Manager Leni Sivey reflects on the process, what will happen to the great ideas generated and offers you the chance to have your say.

Leni Sivey

In between the sticky notes

Planning a workshop is a weird thing, in my experience. Hopefully somewhere between the flip chart paper, the marker pens, and the name badges there’s the shape of a space where people can connect to share their realities and priorities. Where they can trust that they will be heard. It’s hard to pin down, but whether it works is much more down to the people than the pens (but always bring more pens).

Earlier this month we launched the HRA’s new three-year strategy.

One of the two principles we’ve promised will guide our work now is to include everyone – so that health and social care research is done with and for everyone. We held a workshop at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester to think about how to make that happen.

I’m so grateful to everyone who joined us for that session, and especially to everyone who was there as a patient, carer, service user, or member of the public. It takes courage to ask for change. Particularly if you have to ask for it again and again. And particularly if the people you’re asking to do things differently can also decide whether your voice will be heard in future.

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What we asked and what we heard

The ‘Include’ pillar of our strategy is made up of three parts:

  • Include everyone in research
  • Ask you what you want research to look like and act on this
  • Involve you in the HRA

In discussion groups we asked each other:

  1. What should the HRA do to achieve this?
  2. What should we influence others to do?
  3. Who should we work with?

You can read the full report from the workshop on our website.

People told us loud and clear: you can’t do the same things in the same ways with the same people and expect the outcomes to be different. If you want things to be different, you have to do things differently.

Their challenge to us was to recognise how the way we work right now includes some people and excludes others. Sitting at a conference table writing ideas on post-it notes is a lot of people’s idea of hell. Doing things differently will mean getting out of our comfort zone so that other people can be in theirs.

The people at the workshop said we should be ‘a beacon of sharing’: visible, up front, and accountable. They called on us to reach out to people who don’t already know about research where they are, and to make it easier for them to shape it. They were clear: everyone who has power in the research world is responsible for making that world properly inclusive. People deserve to know when and how they will be able to see and feel the difference that working differently makes.

The people in those physical and virtual rooms showed up with such authenticity, and did a brilliant job of standing in solidarity with the people who aren’t part of the conversation yet but who deserve to be heard.

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No more doomed tomatoes

The HRA’s Board is our highest decision-making group and we’re going to work with them to turn this incredibly valuable feedback into action. Right now, holding the outcomes from the workshop feels like precious cargo people have entrusted us with. On 20 July the Board will meet with some of our public contributors to hear the feedback in their own words, and then we’ll meet again in September to make a work plan and commit to how we’ll be held accountable.

And that planning is crucial for success. There are some sad tomato seedings withering away in my garden. I was so excited when they first germinated, but while they were still fragile sprouts I didn’t plan ahead for how I would replant them with stakes for support so they would have an environment where they could take root and grow.

We’ve learned so much about being an involving organisation over the past year, and we have so much more to learn. Our next step has to be helping these calls for change take root in our organisation, making sure they don’t dry up or get squeezed out by other plants which are competing for the same soil. But these are not fragile ideas – they’re powerful and I can’t wait to see how they might transform our ecosystem if we let them flourish.

And there’s still chance to be part of it

If you weren’t able to be part of our workshop, you can still have your say and help us to make change. Have a read of our questions and our feedback document and let us know if we’ve missed anything. You can email your thoughts to up until the 4 July, and we’ll add them to the list.

And watch this space! We’ll share more information after the Board meetings and as we move forwards together.

Leni Sivey, Public Involvement Manager
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