Public Administration CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Sciencewise (PE 4)

1. Summary

1.1. Public engagement is a broad field of practice. It is important not to impose a “one size fits all” approach. Sciencewise-ERC believes that the public dialogue model could be used more widely in Government.

1.2. Public dialogue differs from many other forms of public engagement in policy-making because it:

typically happens earlier in the decision making cycle;

involves specially recruited, diverse groups of citizens;

invites informed deliberation and the interaction between experts, citizens and policy-makers.

1.3. Good public dialogue can help policy-makers and Government to:

make better, more robust decisions that reflect public values and societal implications;

increase legitimacy for tough decisions;

demonstrate accountability in public investment;

overcome entrenched positions to enable policy to move forward;

gain a richer understanding of public views.

remove Government responsibility for decision-making;

rely only on surveys or opinion polls to gather public views;

seek endorsement of decisions that have already been made;

replace other public information or consultation processes.

1.5. Much engagement still follows a “deficit model” where it is seen to be a one-way flow of information from experts to a largely passive public.

1.6. In some cases a more “upstream” approach is called for.

1.7. Public engagement in policy-making should not be seen as separate from stakeholder engagement. Digital engagement is an exciting new area and the choice between digital and face-to-face engagement needs to be made in each case based on the particular policy context. In some cases face-to-face engagement provides an irreplaceable function.

1.8. Organisational culture has a big impact on the ability of the public sector to engage effectively.

1.9. We do not believe that the number of participants in a public engagement exercise is necessarily a good measure of success or legitimacy. The depth and quality of the deliberation is also a vital consideration.

2. Introduction

2.1. The Sciencewise Expert Resource Centre (Sciencewise—ERC) is the UK’s national centre for public dialogue in policy making involving science and technology issues, funded by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). We welcome the opportunity to provide evidence to the Committee.

2.2. The main aim of Sciencewise—ERC is to improve policy making involving science and technology across Government by increasing the effectiveness with which public dialogue is used, and encouraging its wider use where appropriate. This will ensure that future policy involving science, technology and innovation is robustly developed, informed by public concerns and aspirations and based on all the available evidence.

3. About Public Dialogue

3.1. Sciencewise—ERC promotes and supports public dialogue. Public dialogue is a particular type of public engagement1 which brings together members of the public, policy makers, scientists and other expert stakeholders to deliberate and come to conclusions on public policy issues, which can be at a national or local policy level.

3.2. Sciencewise—ERC public dialogues have differed from a lot of public engagement done elsewhere. This form of public engagement:

typically happens earlier in the decision making cycle than much other public engagement;

involves specially recruited, diverse groups of citizens;

invites informed deliberation and the interaction between experts and citizens.

3.3. Sciencewise—ERC believes that these features of public dialogue (which are included in the Sciencewise-ERC Guiding Principles2 ) are valuable and could play a greater role in public engagement in policy making on other policy areas.

4. How do the models of policy-making currently used in Government promote or discourage members of the public from getting involved?

4.1. For over a decade experts have warned of the ‘deficit model’ of engagement where it is seen to be a one-way flow of information from experts to a largely passive public, with little real voice for people in decision-making.3 In response a number of organisations4 have called for ‘upstream engagement’ ie engaging to explore people’s attitudes and aspirations well before major policy decisions are made.

4.2. Our research5 has found that public engagement in national decision-making has sometimes tended to be a reactive process, often commissioned by Government as a result of public dissatisfaction or the failure of a national policy. Engagement commissioned in this way usually occurs late in the policy cycle and is primarily seen as a way of rebuilding trust in a discredited decision-making process. Sciencewise—ERC was established as part of the move towards ‘upstream’, or earlier engagement with citizens. Upstream engagement aims to shape better policy decisions and to prevent the loss of public trust, rather than trying to rebuild it after policy failure. Upstream engagement is not suitable to all policies but it can often yield good results.

4.3. While we believe that formal consultations are an important part of Government policy making, they are limited in that they tend to be responded to by stakeholders and/or those with very strong views. Dialogue of the type Sciencewise—ERC supports is designed to reach a cross-section of members of the public. Past research shows that many formal consultations have limited trust by the public.6 It is also important to remember that public engagement must sit alongside wider stakeholder engagement to be truly effective.

4.4. A common problem which we have identified in some current engagement practice is a lack of feedback to the public on how public/stakeholder views have or have not been taken on board. We have found that effective feedback helps the public to understand the impact they have had on policy which in turn builds trust.7

4.5. Online and digital modes of engagement are and will continue to be important. New technological developments will transform what is possible offering the opportunity of greater levels of dialogue and involvement of more members of the public and other stakeholders. A number of online and digital initiatives have already made a significant impact on the development of policy.8 However Sciencewise—ERC feels the need to reiterate the importance for face-to-face deliberation in many cases, especially on very contested or complex policy areas. Recent ESRC-funded research found that “Face-to-face techniques, more so than on-line, offer the potential for a richer and more complex platform for discussion and participation.”9

4.6. Sciencewise—ERC has also had success experimenting with ‘distributed dialogues’10—approaches in which public engagement activities have been outsourced to local actors on issues such as bioenergy, flood management and others11. These models will not work in all areas but are certainly worth considering where a policy has wide ranging local impacts.

4.7. There is also the need to consider that generally, although people want to know that the public is consulted on science issues, they do not necessarily want to get involved themselves. Research from the Public Attitudes to Science Survey 201112 indicated that 50% of respondents felt this way, and this is mirrored by existing research on involvement in public policy issues.

5. What advantages and disadvantages would greater public engagement in policy-making bring?

Existing Evidence:

5.1. Evaluations13 of Sciencewise—ERC have shown that public dialogue has:

Influenced public policy by providing policy-makers with evidence of the richness and strength of public views (eg influenced priorities for investment in nanotechnology research).

Influenced practice by helping Government learn how dialogue can build legitimacy and accountability with the public and contribute to greater respect for science-based decision making.

Enabled progress to be made on strategically significant, sometimes highly contentious topics by supporting policy makers to find ways forward that go with the grain of the public’s views, and avoid the conflicts and entrenched positions that can result in the complete rejection of new technologies.

Improved the quality of communications between Government, scientists and the public by providing a rich understanding of the public’s potential concerns and aspirations on new science and technologies. Policy makers and scientists are then better prepared to discuss the implications with the media and the wider public.

Increased public awareness and understanding of science and technology issues, both among immediate participants and their contacts.

Driven sustainable behaviour change by affecting the views and behaviour of participants, and resulting in the creation of public allies and ambassadors for implementing potentially controversial policies. One evaluation of a deliberative dialogue process found that on average, each participant spoke to 30 others.

5.2. For dialogue to be useful, experience has shown that it must have a clear and well-defined purpose, be tailored to the specific circumstances of the issue area and decision-making process, and be well designed and facilitated. Where these elements are present, evaluations have found dialogue can have a number of benefits to policy makers, other experts and the public?

Benefits to policy-makers and other experts

5.3. Policy-makers have reported the benefit of directly hearing and feeling the strength of public views on issues through a process that goes beyond people’s “knee jerk reactions”. Policy-makers who have participated in public dialogues have said that policy is better as a result of dialogue because:

Policy is more socially informed, making it more robust and credible with less chance of negative social impacts. The Hybrid and Chimera Embryos for Research dialogue, for example, gave policy makers at the HFEA confidence in their final decision (on whether hybrid embryos should be allowed for research purposes).

Policy is more publicly acceptable, because it is developed with an understanding of how and why the public is likely to react. The Nanodialogues, for example, led the Environment Agency to revise its approach to regulating nanoparticles in the environment as a result of listening to the recommendations of public participants.

Policy is more cost effective in the long term, because the likelihood of future unforeseen conflict is reduced and final decisions are easier to implement as they are based on the best possible knowledge from a range of sources.

5.4. There is sometimes resistance towards public engagement in policy making because of a fear that members of the public will be unable to make the difficult trade-offs and will reject controversial policies out of hand. Our evaluations of dialogues on two dozen controversial topics however show that public participants are able to make complex trade-offs between the benefits and risks of science and technology developments. Providing the process is well designed and managed the public do not reject new policies out of hand, but form nuanced positions regarding how new developments should be regulated and governed.

5.5. Beyond the value to policy making, policy makers have cited a number of other benefits from public dialogue; among other things, they have:

Developed better relationships with stakeholders.

Developed better relationships with public participants.

Enhanced profile and reputation.

Improved their future communications.

6. What are the best tools and methods for enabling public engagement in policymaking?

6.1. Sciencewise—ERC specialises in public dialogue, which complement consultations and other methods of engagement. However, many complex decisions are not so readily amenable to public consultation, but rather require participants to become informed about an issue before they comment on it. Deliberative methods generally involve a smaller number of participants, who are given the time and resources to discuss pertinent issues before coming to conclusions. There is a significant body of evidence to say that deliberative processes provide very different qualitative results compared to other forms of engagement.14

6.2. Some may view public engagement with greater numbers of participants as more representative and legitimate. This is a fallacy. The ‘right’ number of participants depends on the purpose of a public dialogue and, more specifically, who or what (if anything) the participants are intended to represent. There can be a trade-off between the depth of a discussion and the number of people who can be involved in it.

6.3. In-depth deliberation, such as that carried out in Sciencewise—ERC dialogues, is an intense process requiring high-quality facilitation and the opportunity for participants to interact with one another and directly with experts in order to develop their views and delve beyond them to uncover the values, beliefs, experiences, interests and needs that underlie them (particularly important for complex policy areas). In these cases a smaller number of participants engaged in a more in depth deliberation will be far more valuable than a larger (but more superficial) engagement.

6.4. Purposive sampling (selecting people to represent the widest possible set of views, values and demographics) can be a powerful tool. The findings using this method still cannot be taken to be statistically representative of the general population, but can uncover a wide and sufficiently diverse range of participants’ views and values to provide a valuable picture of public concerns15.

6.5. Good public engagement often involves a mixed approach. The Sciencehorizons dialogue project, for example, included a deliberative panel (involving 31 participants), facilitated public events (involving 842 participants) and self-managed, small group discussions (involving around 2,400 participants).16

7. How should the Government measure the success or failure of different public engagement models?

7.1. The assessment of the success or failure of public engagement must be based on the purpose of the exercise. An engagement process which primarily aims to make better informed decisions will have to be judged differently to one which primarily aims to simply provide information. Sciencewise—ERC’s continuing emphasis on effective evaluation of all the public dialogue projects it co-funds has significantly helped to develop practice in this field17.

7.2. The success or failure of engagement goes beyond the choice of method and often depends on the principles that underlie the process. Sciencewise—ERC has developed a set of guiding principles for Government 18. We believe that public dialogue in science and technology should aim to:

Be clear in its purposes and objectives from the outset.

Be well timed in relation to public and political concerns.

Commence as early as possible in the policy/decision process.

Feature commitment and buy-in from policy actors.

Have sufficient resources in terms of time, skills and funding.

Be governed in a way appropriate to the context and objectives.

Be clear about the extent to which participants will be able to influence outcomes. Dialogue will be focused on informing, rather than determining policy and decisions.

Involve a number and demographic of the population that is appropriate to the task to give robustness to the eventual outcomes’.

8. How should the Government ensure that its spending on increasing public engagement in policy-making delivers value for money?

8.1. Research shows that the scale of investment in engagement is very often dwarfed by the scale of the general investment in the policy fields that the engagement has influenced and that conflict (which engagement is generally seen to reduce the risk of) is very costly.19

8.2. Overall, the evidence indicates that the costs of not doing public engagement can far outweigh the costs of the engagement. Public dialogue allows policy makers to find ways forward that avoid conflicts and entrenched positions that can result in the complete rejection of new technologies.20

8.3. As early as 1994 a World Bank Report identified participation as highly beneficial and cost effective21.

9. What role should the permanent civil service play in policy-making in the modern world?

9.1. Sciencewise—ERC research22 has shown the important role that internal operating culture plays in facilitating successful engagement, with different Government Departments and Agencies having very different starting points for their work. Generally, we have found that where policy-makers attend engagement events and get involved directly, they find the process much more valuable.

9.2. Government must take final responsibility for making fair and balanced policy decisions that are informed by a range of evidence, including from the public. The public see decision-making as a complex process that requires a wide range of inputs, and do not want to have the final decision in complex technical areas of public policy.23 Research from the Public Attitudes to Science 2011 also suggests that, while much of the public thinks the Government should take on board the views of ordinary people, many believe the Government should defer to experts and to scientific evidence above public opinion.24

9.3. At public engagement and dialogue events it is important that experts and policy-makers attend and take note of the process. The presence of significant numbers of scientists, policy-makers and other experts increases the likelihood of the process influencing policy. However, we believe that not enough thought has been given to including public engagement in training for policy-making and that it should be an integral part of what it means to be a policy-maker.

10. Will “contestable” (out-sourced) models of policy-making provide greater opportunities for public engagement in the process?

10.1. Outsourcing will not automatically lead to more opportunities for engagement. It will depend on the ability and skills of the organisation charged with running the engagement, and how the process relates to the policy making process. In particular we would highlight the risk that if the process of engaging the public and the process of making the policy decision are divorced entirely the policy team will be less likely to act on the engagement results as they feel less ownership.

Whoever runs engagement must be neutral and seen to be neutral. Evidence has shown that unless this is maintained throughout the engagement, the validity of the outcomes are open to challenge25

Government is generally in a relatively strong position to run engagement, except in certain policy areas where the public questions its neutrality. In these cases a neutral third party convenor makes sense.

It would be difficult for industry groups to be seen to be neutral convenors in most cases.

10.2. As a final point it is also important that Government takes ownership of the process of public engagement and communicates the ways in which it engages with the public to as wide a range of people as possible.

October 2012

1 A good overview of different approaches can be found here:


3 House of Lords Science and Technology Committee ‘Science and Society’ report 2000

4 See for example:


6 See for example:


8 See for example:



11 Sciencehorizons, Low Carbon Communities Challenge

12 Public Attitudes to Science 2011


14 McIver S. “Healthy debate? An independent evaluation of citizen's juries in health settings”. 1998, J Maxwell, S Rosell, PG Forest “Giving citizens a voice in healthcare policy in Canada” BMJ: British Medical Journal, 2003,

15 See for example:



18 (Sciencewise-ERC guiding principles) [i] Sciencewise-ERC (2007) The Government’s Approach to Public Dialogue on Science and Technology. Harwell: Sciencewise-ERC



21 World Bank (1994) The World Bank and Participation. World Bank Learning Group on Participatory Development, Operations Department, September 1994, Washington DC



24 Public Attitudes to Science 2011


Prepared 31st May 2013