Public Administration CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by ESRC Centre for Economic and Social Aspects of Genomics (Cesagen) Cardiff University (PE 01)

By Dr Richard Watermeyer (with input from Professor Ruth Chadwick)

The following statement constitutes a response to the Public Administration Select Committee’s Issue and Questions Paper on the topic of public engagement in policy-making. Special attention is given to answering questions related to models of policy-making, which promote/discourage public groups; the advantages and disadvantages of greater public engagement in policy-making; tools and methods for enabling public engagement in policy-making; and outsourced “contestable” models of public engagement.

This response approaches the issue of public engagement in policy-making through the lens of science and technology and a science and society agenda. A rationale for increased forms of public engagement in matters of policy-making concerning emergent and/or controversial science innovation and research are premised on an ideal of democratic governance in policy systems or “civic epistemologies” and the democratization of scientific knowledge. Public engagement in science and technology (PEST) in the UK is a response to a notion of a British public dispossessed of the opportunity with which to be, not only included but involved in deliberative and decision-making processes, which influence and affect the orientation and outcome of policy, and the manner with which government regulates and legislates the production of scientific research and development. PEST is the embodiment of an upstream, non-deficit version of public groups as competent and enthused handlers, potential collaborators and co-authors of scientific innovation, involved in a process not of understanding science but being engaged and engaging in the production, regulation and distribution of science.

This response focuses on issues in the implementation of PEST in policy-making scenarios such as:

The inadequacy of existing engagement methodologies.

The significance of evaluation for public engagement, yet a sense of the same lessons repeatedly stated yet unlearned or unheard.

Issues of discontinuity and disconnect, respectively, between public engagement as

an event or series of events;

the contribution of public participants;

an on-going political discourse; and

a tangible impact on policy-making processes.

Public engagement as a process of consensus building versus critical intervention.

Public engagement as pseudo-engagement and process of public making.

This response is organised into three categories: advantages of public engagement in policy-making; potential drawbacks of public engagement in policy-making; and what is needed for public engagement in policy-making.

Caveat: The “drawbacks” reported herein are multiple and may appear, at least by numerical comparison, to dwarf the comparative “advantages” of public engagement in policy-making. However, “drawbacks”, many of which are structural and rectifiable—and potentially transferable into a “what is needed” category—should not be seen to outweigh, diminish or negate the significance of “advantages”, which though less numerous are nonetheless considerable.

1. Advantages of Public Engagement in Policy-Making

1.1 Public engagement is a socially inclusive process intended to engineer greater openness, visibility, transparency and accountability in knowledge and policy-making processes and a more meaningful and reciprocal interface between producers/regulators/legislators and the electorate. It is fundamental in delivering, if only the appearance of, democratic citizenship and the mobilization of public groups as a community in practice focused on the fulfilment of a democratically organized public sphere and public good.

1.2 Public engagement provides necessary steer to, and validation of, decision-making processes—depending on the stage of the policy-making process—where decisions are the culmination of consensus by the greatest number, especially where decision-making involves complex and intractable ethical or moral dilemmas.

1.3 Public engagement in this way offers a heuristic for ethical complexity and a catalyst of crowd-sourced problem-solving, co-constructed and equitable approaches to evidence-building and multi-dimensional intelligence-making/sharing.

2. Drawbacks of Public Engagement in Policy-Making

2.1 Opportunities for public engagement in policy matters may be too rigorously choreographed and stage-managed, too tightly fixed to a pre-set agenda and a tacit focus on the realisation of pre-ordained outcomes.

2.2 There are significant structural and procedural issues attached to public engagement such as cost and capacity, and numerous obstacles to its success, such as in convincing publics in the validity of the exercise and the value of their contributions.

2.3 It is unclear quite how beyond formal invitation/recruitment into one-off “engagements” on specific issues, how publics might engage with government on a more regular and involved basis. For example, what scope is there for the implementation of informal and digital engagement streams in steering policy.

2.4 The documentation of public contributions in engagement exercises, such as by official rapporteurs, may be susceptible to a framing effect, inaccuracy and/or misinterpretation.

2.5 Public engagement is intended as a means of making visible and transparent, yet it is not always clear to participants what impact and effect public engagement exercises have on the policy-making process. Indeed, a disconnect between public engagement and policy is exacerbated by their organisation as discrete events.

2.6 Public engagement continues to be blighted by a perception that it is a reactive or post-hoc exercise, where public participation is at a stage of decision-making where its impact is purposely limited and negligible.

2.7 The deliberative value of public engagement in policy contexts is undermined by a paucity of understanding in the way with which expert and non-expert testimony is used, combined or counter-acted and evaluated. It is largely unclear quite the extent to which the testimony of a non-expert is treated and compared to the testimony of an expert and or the degree to which a non-expert public participant is able to challenge an expert and change opinion.

2.8 Processes of translation of knowledge generated in public engagement exercises into policy domains may not be sufficiently robust. Where most public engagement evaluations consider the quality of translation in terms of how information is shared with and disseminated to public groups, there is a dearth of knowledge revealing how public responses are translated back to policy cohorts in substantive and meaningful ways.

2.9 The defining characteristics of public engagement in its “upstream” form are experimentality and diversity. There is no one-size-fits-all method for an upstream engagement of public groups—different publics will have preferred means of communication and processes of retrieving and synthesising information. Upstream engagement may tend therefore to resemble a process of trial and error, which may cause to slow, stall, disrupt or derail policy-making processes, or prove otherwise deleterious where the chosen engagement mechanism/methodology proves to be inappropriate to needs.

2.10 As the RCUK Beacons for Public Engagement revealed, public engagement is an inexact science. It is difficult to predict outcomes and perhaps of greatest concern for policy makers, positive or neutralising outcomes. Engagement may ultimately foment increased uncertainty, anxiety or opposition among certain groups to specific political agendas—a positive development where the public is invoked as contributors of an extended peer-review process, yet less helpful where policy-making processes require rapid response and action. Policy-makers may fear that by inviting too broad a spread of opinions to debate, debate will become fractured, crippled by tangentials and potentially hijacked by other competing agendas.

2.11 Public engagement may not, despite its normative depiction, be an inherently good thing, appropriate or necessary. Indeed, there may be instances where public engagement in policy-making may be harmful to the interests and welfare of public groups or detrimental to national interests.

2.12 While there may be many sections of the public who would chose to engage and be engaged in policy debate, there are those who prefer to delegate the responsibility of developing and administering policy to government as the publics’ elected representative. These are frequently erroneously represented as latent or disinvested publics. Their invisibility in this context is however a consequence not of disinterest or disengagement with a policy agenda or scientific concern, but a lack of confidence and penetration in processes of engagement as catalysts of democratic governance.

2.13 Public engagement exercises in policy-making may ultimately comprise a somewhat homogenous and unrepresentative group of the “likely candidates” and/or those with vested and or equivalent interest, tending to dominate or monopolise dialogue, control the ebb and flow of dialogue themes and orientations, and concurrently instantiate a one-dimensional or partisan dialogic conclusion.

2.14 The most frequently used format for PEST in policy matters is dialogue, co-ordinated by Sciencewise-ERC. Whilst Sciencewise has enjoyed considerable success in engaging publics in policy discussions related to emergent and controversial technoscience, it is unclear quite the extent to which dialogue activities have ameliorated the nexus between publics and policy; the quality, longevity and purposefulness of these interactions; and the difference these interactions have made, in measurable ways, on the development and delivery of policy.

2.15 Dialogue activity too frequently resembles a process of event-making, which intimates the invitation of the publics into policy discussions—less inclusion. These events are also problematized by issues of brevity; isolation and discontinuity; instrumentalism; high cost; and containment. The last issue is especially troubling, if dialogue exercises are seen as an open and closed event; where issues raised are restricted to the event itself, or where participants are mobilized in such ways where significant concerns are neutralized.

2.16 Scientific controversy and public disquiet are necessary aspects of deliberative processes, without which policy occurs in a social vacuum. Conclusions may not therefore accurately reflect or respond to issues that court and perpetuate “radical uncertainty”. For instance, where dialogue is made anodyne, sanitised or limp, the prospect of purposeful and constructive argumentation desists as might publics’ level of participation as committed and concerned citizens.

2.17 Upstream engagement involves not only lengthy deliberation but the intervention of public groups at multiple interstices. This requires time and patience, conditions scarcely and/or rarely available in policy-making contexts.

2.18 While digital and social media are significant for enabling knowledge transfer and exchange and the emergence of networked, transnational and heterogeneous public communities (in-practice), they are not, as a technology of elicitation, immune to issues of risk. Digital information repositories are made analogous to leaky containers, where sensitive, privileged or protected information travels insecurely and indiscriminately, and may be exposed, albeit inadvertently, to individuals or groups who may use such information against the public good. The endlessness of the blogosphere is one example of how public engagement conducted via new media may cause to crowd, confuse and potentially corrupt policy debate.

2.19 The blogosphere as a space for publics’ discursive/dialogical participation in matters of governance is hugely significant, as are other forms of 2.0 digital and social media. These forms of new media are also significant for the manner in which they not only connect but substantiate networks, communities, critical mass and critical conscientiousness. They are increasingly promoted as a means with which “experts” are able to interact, engage and even collaborate with publics, in a way where their work is provided greater credence and legitimacy, yet not only through public dissemination or expertise translated in a way made accessible and understandable to larger numbers, but where their expertise and enterprise is knowingly subjected to public scrutiny. “Research blogging” is one way not only of broadening the base of scientific prospectors, interest-groups, enthusiasts but widening discussion. However, it is also unclear, what the impact of the blogosphere is on policy contexts. How influential are bloggers and how much can public engagement on policy be organised through such individuals as “authentic” public representatives?

2.20 Public engagement in policy contexts is a process aimed at facilitating the articulation of the “public good”. However the “public good” is an abstract and ambiguous concept. It is unclear for instance whether the good in question is an outcome in the interest of the public or outcome deemed to be positive by public groups. Furthermore, which public does this relate to?

2.21 Public engagement initiatives and proselytes are habitually guilty of a failure to systematically differentiate the publics. A process of segmentation and publics mapping is a precondition of aligning policy agendas to different interest groups and mobilizing public groups in the most efficient and useful ways, where their experience and knowledge may be used to best effect. It is naïve to imagine that every policy concern/item will have universal relevance. That said, there is arguably a duty in the context of public engagement to inform publics in such ways, whereby they are responsible for determinations as to the exact relevance of a policy agenda. This process is inherently underpinned by educational processes—both formal and informal.

2.22 Another danger inherent to the personalization of policy concerns, is an emphasis on the individual less collective or community in response to matters of governance. In other words, efforts to make explicit the personal relevance of a policy concern, may unnecessarily silo citizens and delimit their activity to specific self-invested concerns—anathema to the notion of shared and collective governance—instead the pursuit of self-aggrandising or selfish interests.

2.23 A key concern in public engagement where publics’ segmentation is necessary is how not to, unwittingly, precipitate social and cultural divisions.

2.24 Segmentation may also cause to reinforce the homogeneity of engagement participants by instigating a hierarchy of those, with for instance, the greatest dialogical and cultural capital.

2.25 Despite an insistence on the value of public engagement in policy contexts, there is little in the way of empirical or evidence-based findings, which conclusively correlate public engagement activity to social inclusion, social cohesion and democratic governance. In fact it may be the case that the promissory rhetoric of public engagement is not so well reflected in the context of its outcomes.

3. What is Needed for Public Engagement in Policy-Making

3.1 There is a need to comprehensively disaggregate publics and recruit representatively—a need for a typology of publics in as much as typology of engagement methodology and policy needs.

3.2 There is an explicit danger that public engagement in policy is viewed pejoratively and suspiciously by publics who identify it as a redundant and self-fulfilling process or “symbolic fiction”. Work needs to be done in order to stabilise and improve publics’ perception of public engagement as a process of critical and meaningful intervention less publics co-opted for the purpose of consensus building.

3.3 Engagement process may be undermined by a weakness of a single approach and single time-frame—dialogue processes for instance should be more frequently complemented by other engagement technologies.

3.4 There is currently too strict a delineation between formal and informal repertoires and models of public engagement—there ought to be a greater interface between these methods and constituencies.

3.5 A far greater investment is required in evaluation, dissemination and subsequent implementation of evaluative recommendations, particularly where these are consistently reported, into procedural guidelines.

3.6 There is a need to invest in continuous feedback mechanisms facilitating engagement as an on-going process less isolated event, which can feed into, enrich and extend political discourse.

3.7 There is a need to repatriate publics via explication/elicitation of policy-making processes—it is necessary for publics not only to gain awareness of the science at hand but the process by which its regulation/legislation occurs.

3.8 There appears a gap-of-knowledge or myopia surrounding the public’s understanding of the policy-making processes and furthermore the significance and contribution of elite or recognised stakeholders– a need for far greater contextualization and clarification of purpose, aims and objectives.

3.9 Continued investment is required among more learned or expert cohorts in the value of public engagement to policy and in ways which circumvents the instrumentalization of public engagement, where public engagement is deployed as a performance indicator or in the articulation of a non-academic impact such as in the REF 2014.

3.10 Continued investment is required in a critical discourse for public engagement in policy-making such as through academic/practitioners/public/policy physical and digital fora, though with an accent on the former.

3.11 Typological differentiation of public engagement is recommended as a form of science/subject popularization; method of public communication/dissemination; paradigm of education/learning process; and conduit for democratic governance

3.12 Increased investment is recommended, in high visibility/high status public champions/ambassadors for public engagement in policy contexts across organisational/institutional/sectoral contexts and with a direct-line to the civil service and government, mobilizing a more efficient and proactive discourse and ecology of contestable policy-making.

3.13 For public engagement to move beyond response-mode consultation, significant investment is required in establishing infrastructure and capacities which will increase the numbers of public/citizen groups involved and the potential of their impact in influencing decision-making processes. Existing infrastructure is limited. This also however demands buy-in from public groups/institutions and culture change on the part of individuals.

3.14 Evaluation therefore is required not just for public engagement activity but the means and process thereafter where the outputs of public engagement translate into outcomes for policy. This requires substantial investment in tracking and mapping the travel of public engagement outputs and their impact in policy contexts. A cartography of public engagement policy impacts would endlessly improve the value attributed to public engagement among public cohorts and also provide a manual for publics in maximising their influence, with increased cognizance of intermediaries/gatekeepers and in elucidating more of a direct line between publics and those ultimately charged with the implementation of policy.

3.15 Public engagement requires explicit rationalization in educational terms, in so much as where learners in formal educational contexts, school, college, university and non-formal contexts, and at every life stage are invested in so that they are afforded the opportunity to engage as informed citizens. Again, engagement should not merely be read as a process of popularization, though this is important, but a process focused on enabling and maximising the existing and future capacities of learner-groups as formative/future citizens. Engagement begins not at an adult level, but at the earliest intervention, enabling children with the knowledge and skills necessary for the demands of active citizenship.

3.16 Public engagement is a long-term process, particularly in the context of open-sourcing less consultation. It consequently is ill-matched with decision-making as it occurs in a policy context, where political terms of office are short-term and transient and policy foci vacillate with the political ideology or prioritisation of ministerial cohorts. For public engagement to have a more useful and focused impact on policy, government and civil services processes will themselves have to change and become more co-operative and attuned.

3.17 A direct and largely unanswered question focuses on whether public engagement actually facilitates the production of better policy. Furthermore, how and in what ways if any, is upstream engagement, a more effective vehicle for policy-making—invested in representing and safeguarding public interests and the public good—than other and previous paradigms of government outreach such as through expert consultation.

October 2012

Prepared 31st May 2013