Public Administration CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Professor Kathy Sykes, University of Bristol (PE 8)

1. Summary

1.1 This inquiry is welcome, especially the emphasis on opening up policy-making before policy proposals have been formulated and asking the public to help define problems rather than respond to solutions.

1. 2 Key questions are “how do the public want to be involved in policy-making, and which methods will encourage them and be inclusive as well as efficient? It would be wise to be asking the public these questions, in a range of different ways, rather than relying on just the current models of policy-making (which have been described as having insufficient external challenge).

1. 3 If the Government decides to proceed down this route, this process itself is something which critically needs substantial public engagement to work out the processes collaboratively with the public, as this will be the basis for many future interactions. It’s crucial to get this part as “right” as it can be.

1. 4 It would be ironic if this policy development took place having already narrowed down the suggested solutions (digital platforms) before engaging with the public, when the whole process is meant to be moving from asking about solutions to asking about problems.

1. 5 There are many ways of engaging the public. Different issues at different times will benefit from using different approaches. To “open up” this new way of doing policy, using a range of different of models will be needed to be sure to reach a breadth of different kinds of people, including some face-to-face engagement.

1. 6 Digital platforms can provide some ways of engaging with the public and could enable many people to participate.

1. 7 However, if digital platforms are the only way people can participate, some people will be left out. At times, some of those very people, whether the elderly, marginalized or disabled, will be some of the most important, valuable voices to hear.

1. 8. Care is needed in any engagement approach to get beyond the people with vested interests, and beyond the people who are most articulate and most aware of policy “opportunities”. Extra effort will be needed to be inclusive. Marginalized groups can often feel less of a sense of “agency” and less able to bring about change, so they will need extra effort to include.

1.9. Sciencewise is a resource to help policy-makers across all government departments and agencies to do public dialogue based on good practice, and has gained expertise in running different kinds of public dialogues, at different costs, on different issues over 7 years (www.sciencewise-erc.org.uk). Various government departments and funding bodies in the UK have used Sciencewise to help them run public dialogues well, including the Department of Energy and Climate Change on “Energy 2050 pathways”; the Department of Health on “animals containing human material” and several research councils on Geo-engineering, Synthetic Biology and Ageing.

1. 10 The definition of “science” used by Government covers all areas of research, including social sciences and arts and humanities. So Sciencewise is able to address issues that are wider than straight science.

1.11 Sciencewise would be a valuable resource to help run some public dialogues and other face-to-face engagement processes when asking the public about the key issues around this Inquiry.

1.12. Sciencewise public dialogues already look at issues “upstream” in terms of policy-development: before policy proposals have been formulated. Public participants are selected and supported to engage over a period of time, to ensure a broad cross section of people are included who have the time to learn about the issues, reflect on them and discuss them with experts. Past public dialogues have consistently surprised policy-makers by the sophistication of public thinking. They have proved the value of harnessing public “thinking” and deeper reflection. This deeper thinking is harder to capture in many other forms of engagement.

1.13. Benefits of public dialogues, as evidenced by Sciencewise evaluations, and supported by evaluations of public dialogues in other countries include: making better, more robust decisions; helping to make the case for tough decisions and being accountable.

1. 14. Public dialogues and other face-to-face interactions with groups who are selected because they don’t have vested interests and represent a broad range of backgrounds, can help policy-makers understand ordinary people’s thinking and ideas on topics which have become polarized in the media and public debates.

http://www.sciencewise-erc.org.uk/cms/assets/Uploads/Publications/Sciencewise-Evaluation-Report-FINAL.pdf

2. Addressing question 1 : How do the models of policy-making currently used in Government promote or discourage members of the public from getting involved?

2. 1 Many people see policy-making as happening behind closed doors and as something they can’t influence. When people are asked to contribute to government thinking, they are often suspicious that their views won’t be considered.

2. 2 Formal Consultations and Select Committee Inquiries allow people to respond to proposed policies or to particular issues. However, people need to be sufficiently aware and motivated to respond, and need to have the commitment and time. So these mechanisms are mostly appealing to stakeholders and people with strong views. While it is important to know what stakeholders think and understand the wide range of views people hold, in my experience these approaches rarely get large numbers of ordinary people involved.

2. 3 There are many instances when the Government asks another organization or group to report on an issue. For example, the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering being asked to consider Nanotechnologies. In these cases often a broad range of people with different expertizes come together to consider and deliberate on an issue, and occasionally some public engagement will also be run. The government responds officially to the final report. While seen by some as a way of “slightly” opening policy, it rarely allows public voices to be heard.

2. 4 Public dialogues usually only allow a particular group of people to be involved in the dialogue, as they are selected to represent a broad range of kinds of people. Numbers may vary from 15 to several hundred. This group is supported so that they stay involved and participants value the experience. There are also usually other components available so that a wider group can contribute, say an open meeting, written consultation or use of digital media.

3. Addressing question 2: What advantages and disadvantages would greater public engagement in policy-making bring?

3. 1. The costs of not engaging the public well can be enormous. Some have claimed that handling the GM issue badly has lost the UK billions of pounds. A key part of the “GM Nation” national conversation was not based on good practice. This is partly what prompted Lord Sainsbury to decide that something like Sciencewise was needed.

3. 2. Benefits of public dialogues, as evidenced by Sciencewise evaluations, and supported by evaluations of public dialogues in other countries include: making better, more robust decisions; helping to make the case for tough decisions and being accountable.

3.3. Public dialogues have also helped to prevent departments from spending money. For example, a Department of Health dialogue on “Ways to Wellbeing”, stopped an expensive advertising campaign on wellbeing from being run.

3. 4. If policy-makers understand people’s aspirations and concerns better, they can be helped to make hard decisions. John Hutton has said that doing a public dialogue helped his team to “think through the issues” and write the Pensions White Paper in 2006. He said it gave them the confidence to make “braver” decisions, including the recommendation to increase the age of retirement.

3.5 Another example the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority’s decision-making about hybrid and chimera embryos for research. This included six deliberative public dialogues, a public meeting, an opinion poll and a written consultation. The results gave the HFEA the confidence to allow research into hybrid/chimera embryos in principle, but under strict guidelines informed by public thinking. An HFEA representative stated: “Well it definitely helped the Authority come to a robust decision as it gave in-depth knowledge of public opinion and the reasoning behind it. With questionnaires you don’t get the rationale behind it”.

3. 6. Opening up questions at an early stage and inviting ideas has been shown to bring more creativity to policy-making. Public dialogues are one of the approaches which can enable this.

3. 7 However, every kind of engagement has a cost. If the public’s expectations are not managed, and the public don’t feel listened to, they can feel frustrated and think that the exercise has been hollow. Good practice needs to be followed in any engagement approach, which includes giving feedback to participants about what has happened and why, especially explaining “why” when people have not been listened to.

3.8 There are also risks if engagement is not inclusive or if it is seen as representing only sections of society.

4.0 Addressing question 3: What are the best tools and methods for enabling public engagement in policy- making?

4. 1 Different policy areas at different times will need different approaches in public engagement.

5.0 Addressing question 3a: How should the Government measure the success or failure of different public engagement models?

5. 1 The government should experiment with different public engagement models, and assess success, failure and cost. Sciencewise has already done some work to try assess this for deliberative public dialogues.

5. 2. Policy-makers need to reflect and record how any piece of public engagement has: helped, or hindered them; what they would have done differently, the costs and time involved; and what might have happened without the activity. These need to be compared systematically.

6.0 Addressing question 5: Will “contestable” (out-sourced) models of policy-making provide greater opportunities for public engagement in the process?

6.1 Outsourced models of policy-making could provide opportunities for public engagement, if it is made a requirement. Organisations and networks which are neutral and competent and trusted by particular communities, could potentially be a good route to reaching people.

6.2. There is a risk when distancing policy-makers from the public. Where public dialogues have been most successful, policy-makers have been closely involved with the process. They have heard the public’s thinking, and the public have found the process more legitimate because a real policy-maker is there. At its best, the public and policy-makers and other experts co-create new approaches.

7.0 Addressing question 6. What lessons can be learned from abroad, and how can they be applied within the UK?

7.1 Governments in other countries including Denmark and the Netherlands, have been using public dialogue to help decision-making for many years. In the USA “America Speaks” is an organization that helps open up policy issues using dialogue approaches. The European Commission is also experimenting with public dialogue. Sciencewise has captured learning from other countries to create their guidance to best practice in public dialogue. More lessons could certainly be learned, especially in the use of social media and other digital platforms.

8.0 Addressing question 7: How should Government ensure that policy shaped by public engagement reflects the chosen that policy shaped by public engagement reflects the chosen strategy of the Government; and national strategic imperatives?

8.1 If Government is to ask the public to be involved in shaping policies, it needs to be open-minded and prepared to hear other ideas and thinking. However, ultimately Government needs to make final decisions about policies.

October 2012

Prepared 31st May 2013