Public Administration CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) (PE 5)

1. The National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement [NCCPE]1 was established in 2008 as part of the Beacons for Public Engagement initiative, funded by RCUK, the UK Higher Education Funding Councils and the Wellcome Trust. The Beacons for Public Engagement initiative was designed to support public engagement across the higher education sector.

2. Six “beacon” projects were established as university-based collaborative centres to help support, recognise, reward and build capacity for public engagement work. The six Beacons were based in Newcastle and Durham, Manchester, Norwich (UEA), UCL, Cardiff and Edinburgh. The funding for these projects finished in December 2011. Recently RCUK funded a further eight “Catalyst” projects to take further the learning from the Beacons with the overarching aim of embedding a culture within higher education where public engagement with research is valued and recognised.

3. The NCCPE was set up to co-ordinate and share learning between the Beacons and across UK higher education institutions [HEIs] and research institutes, and was granted a two year extension at the start of 2012 to disseminate the learning from the Beacons project, and to provide coordination for the new Catalyst centres.

4. Our submission is intended to pinpoint things we have learnt from our project which could be of value to the Committee’s thinking about this topic. While our focus has been predominantly within universities, there are many points of connection with the challenges of embracing public engagement within policy making.

5. In particular, we want to focus on three themes:

What we have learned about the role of “digital” engagement as part of a wider strategy for engagement with the public.

What we have learned about the advantages/benefits of public engagement and public dialogue.

What we have learned about the how to change the practices and professional cultures of universities so that their staff embrace a greater commitment to engagement with the public.

What Have we Learned about the Role of “Digital” Engagement as Part of a Wider Strategy for Engagement With the Public?

6. Several of the Beacon projects sought to develop good practice in engagement between researchers, policy makers and the public. This work was framed within RCUK’s over-arching Public Engagement with Research strategy2 which includes a commitment to identifying public attitudes and values to be considered through the lifecycle of research and fostering debate that will enable public aspirations and concerns to contribute to policies and research strategies. For instance, the Edinburgh Beltane3 had a particular focus on bringing together researchers, policy makers and the public to build dialogue about emerging strategic themes within public policy.

7. The NCCPE has also worked closely with the BIS-funded “Sciencewise4” project to share learning about effective practice in this area.

8. We welcome this inquiry and its underpinning assumption that it is important to increase public participation in policy making. However, we believe that there are dangers in relying too exclusively on digital platforms for this engagement. While digital platforms can help to achieve a greater volume of responses with fewer resources, many topics require longer-term engagement and the kind of deliberation that can be achieved through a well-managed public dialogue. Examples of such can be found on the Sciencewise website. Such dialogues encourage all participants to hear and respond to each others’ views, exchange learning and explore and interpret their responses in more depth. The NCCPE therefore would support a policy which integrates both approaches to promoting direct public participation.

What Have we Learned about the Advantages/Benefits of Public Engagement and Public Dialogue?

9. The NCCPE website provides a summary of the benefits that greater public engagement with research can bring5. Many of these advantages also apply to public engagement with policy making, in particular the concrete ways in which public engagement and public dialogue helps institutions to keep abreast of public concerns and expectations and supports real-world problem solving. We would argue that these advantages are most likely to be achieved if there is sustained and in depth interaction between member of the public and the policy making process.

10. Two key advantages are described below:

Public engagement and dialogue helps institutions to demonstrate accountability in a climate of increasing scrutiny.

Public dialogue can lead to more informed and “socially grounded” decision making.

11. Public engagement and dialogue helps institutions to demonstrate accountability in a climate of increasing scrutiny. The public are increasingly prepared to challenge policies and decision making processes. Through public engagement, policy makers can demonstrate openness, transparency and accountability and ensure that there is well-informed debate and dialogue about future policies.

12. The Public Attitudes to Science survey6 in 2008 found that the public expect that research scientists and policy makers should be more open about their work, be accountable to the public for public money invested, and understand and respond to public priorities. For example:

only 21% of the public agree that “the public is sufficiently involved in decisions about science and technology”;

78% of the public agreed that “we ought to hear about potential new areas of science and technology before they happen, not afterwards”;

79% of the public felt that the Government should act in accordance with public concerns about science and technology; and

74% felt that scientists should listen more to what ordinary people think.

13. Increased public engagement can begin to address some of these worrying statistics. An evaluation report7 commissioned by Sciencewise summarised findings from a number of Sciencewise-ERC public engagement projects. It found compelling evidence of the following benefits to researchers and experts taking part. The benefits for wider society included:

Building trust in Government and public institutions by increasing openness and transparency in decision-making processes, and helping public participants to understand and have confidence in public policy processes.

Strengthening democracy, by providing new ways that citizens can engage in, and influence, political and policy decisions (eg the allocation of resources). Appropriate recruitment ensures the involvement of traditionally disenfranchised sectors of society.

Building skills and enthusiasm for active citizenship. As people gain confidence in their opinions and that someone will listen to and take account of their views, their interest and willingness to take a greater part in society increases.

Building social cohesion and social capital by bringing diverse types of people together in a safe environment in which they can exchange views and work together on a joint enterprise, and get to know and better trust people from sectors of society that they would not normally meet. Dialogue ensures everyone is tolerant of the views of others, even if they disagree’.

14. In summary, the report concluded that “public dialogue provides four types of benefits:

“added value” benefits (dialogue adds to the value of the process);

“unique” benefits (which can only be achieved with dialogue);

“developmental” or “transformative” benefits (around learning and capacity building); and

“instrumental” benefits (such as legitimacy of decisions or strengthened democracy)”.

15. Public dialogue can lead to more informed and “socially grounded” decision making

In March 2007, Research Councils UK’s Energy Programme launched a public dialogue to inform decisions about the funding of research areas for the next three years. The evaluation8 of the project provides useful lessons. The aim of the dialogue was for these decision-makers to understand public views, alongside academic, industry and government views, to help them shape their thinking and decisions on future energy research priorities.

16. A formal evaluation was completed, and revealed significant benefits in terms of legitimacy and accountability. The dialogue demonstrated that Research Councils UK was willing to open up their decision-making processes to include feedback on public opinion, to complement their work with institutional and academic stakeholders. Comments from Advisory Group members included:

“It was important that we exposed ourselves and opened ourselves to scrutiny. We now know that the public does have views on this” (Advisory Group member interviewee).

“[The main value of public engagement is] Legitimacy. We’re spending public money so we need the public’s views on what we’re doing. There are some lessons about how we could spend our money. There’s also the question of communication: there is clearly the potential to do more” (Advisory Group member interviewee).

“It is helping us to think through our reasons for funding different kinds of research and to sharpen up the justification for what we’re doing … We weren’t expecting definitive results [but] … it has enriched the RCUK’s decision making” (Advisory Group member interviewee).

17. Bailey et al. 19999, and Holder 200410 also note how public participation can result in improved quality and social legitimacy of decisions and outcomes, achieved through including a range of knowledge’s and values.

18. A recent RCUK review provides further evidence of how the outcomes of such public dialogue can include more open research governance and decision making, which is recognised to be a condition of wider public confidence in the research system. The RCUK review11 looked at the lessons learned from their commissioned public dialogues. The report found that Research Council public dialogues have led to important and productive impacts on Research Council work. It also highlighted international recognition for RCUK’s commitment to public dialogue and innovation in upstream engagement. The review identified six main areas where public dialogues have provided value and made tangible positive impacts to the work of the Research Councils:

Better understanding of public attitudes relating to an emerging area of research;

Better understanding of publics as potential end-users or consumers of research;

Researchers stimulated to reflect on the social implications of their research;

Directly inform Research Council thinking, strategy and decision making;

Promote stronger stakeholder engagement with NGOs and civil society; and

Contribute to wider public debate about emerging research and technologies.

What Have we Learned about the How to Change the Practices and Professional Cultures of Universities so that their Staff Embrace A Greater Commitment to Engagement With the Public?

19. The NCCPE’s work has been particularly focused on addressing the cultural factors which inhibit staff from embracing public engagement within their work. A useful starting point for understanding these factors as they affect research staff and scientists is the 2005 Royal Society report, “Science Communication: Factors Affecting Science Communication by Scientists and Engineers”. There are important lessons here to help ensure that future investment in this area by government delivers value for money and brings about lasting, strategic change

20. By working closely with the Beacon projects, the NCCPE identified nine “ triggers” which need to be addressed if institutions are to develop a culture where public engagement can thrive. These were codified into a self-assessment tool (the EDGE Tool12), which we have used successfully with many institutions to help them to review their strategic and operational support for engagement, and to develop appropriate activity to galvanise change. Such activity will typically include:

Focussing on “purposes” for public engagement, and how these are expressed in mission, leadership and communications;

Addressing key enabling “processes”—staff development, reward and recognition and effective coordination;

Active stakeholder engagement.

21. These findings were reinforced in the recent RCUK review13 of public dialogues. This identified five organisational factors that were critical to ensuring that dialogues play their part in ensuring that public aspirations and concerns contribute to Councils’ policies and research strategies:

Devote sufficient time to upfront planning of the dialogue, this includes clarifying the purpose, ensuring timing is appropriate for feeding into specific decision;

Ensure the dialogue has visible and active high-level support from senior managers within the Research Councils and also relevant senior researchers;

Value of being there—it is widely acknowledged that the most powerful impact from dialogues is on those individuals who participate in (or at least observe) the dialogues;

Appropriate oversight—the role of advisers from within Research Councils and external stakeholders is critical to steering a successful dialogue, but also it is an important mechanism to link the dialogue into relevant Council processes and external agendas; and

Ensure there is organisational capacity to learn from the dialogue—this could mean staff with knowledge and experience of dialogue, and as in the case of the BBSRC and EPSRC having societal issue advisory groups.

22. We would be delighted to share our resources, and the practical lessons we have learned. There are significant cultural and professional challenges which will need to be addressed if the Civil Service is to embrace public engagement with the kind of strategic purpose it deserves.

October 2012


2 Research Councils UK Public Engagement with Research Strategy




6 “Public Attitudes to Science 2008”, Research Councils UK / DIUS

7 Evidence Counts. Understanding the value of public dialogue (Sciencewise-ERC/BIS 2010)

8 Evaluation of the Research Councils UK public dialogue on UK energy research (2008). RCUK / Shared Practice

9 Bailey, P., Yearly, S. and Forrester, J. (1999) “Involving the public in local air pollution assessment: a citizen participation case study”, International Journal of Environment and Pollution, 11(3), 290-303

10 Holder, J. (2004) Environmental Assessment: The Regulation of Decision-making, Oxford University Press: UK

11 Public Dialogue Review: Lessons from public dialogues commissioned by the RCUK


13 Public Dialogue Review: Lessons from public dialogues commissioned by the RCUK

Prepared 31st May 2013