Seven lessons from engaging people on policy

Liminal Space’s ‘Night Club’ project engaged people in the issues associated with a rapid increase in the amount of night working in the UK.

Julie Jenson Bennett and Anne Bowers write: Last year, UK Research and Innovation asked the School of International Futures to consider options for the future model of their public dialogue programme, Sciencewise. As we blogged back in May, we explored leading examples of public engagement around the world for the project, and spoke with those leading that work in ten countries across four continents (including three pan-national projects) to understand what they’ve learned from bringing people from all walks of life into conversations about policy.

Here, we share seven of the key lessons that surfaced.

  1. Difficult conversations are possible

Groups of so-called average citizens (for which, read people of all ages, backgrounds and perspectives), are completely capable of having complex, nuanced conversations on topics that are often assumed to be too difficult for the average person to understand. The public may not use the same language as policymakers or subject matter experts, or draw the same lines around topics, but with the right resources to hand, publics can quickly engage in topics as distant as space exploration and as personal as what new uses are being developed for our genetic code.

2. People don’t always make the expected choices

Members of the public make choices and trade-offs all the time in daily life — both in the immediate and in terms of medium- and long-term options. Given the chance, people often make choices that are more progressive and result in greater equality than experts presume, or frankly give them credit for. While sometimes the choices that people make may not make sense at first glance, when delved into and discussed they reveal important priorities. Books such as Poor Economics have explored this in detail, at both the individual and social level.

3. Dialogue benefits the experts as much as, if not more than, the public

The experts we spoke to in our research all said that conversations with the public made a significant impact on expanding and re-orienting their own thinking. As much as social media bubbles do exist, people engage in challenging conversations with others who have different perspectives all the time. Often policymakers and experts find themselves in much more homogeneous spaces with much higher barriers to entering the conversation.

4. Experience and engagement are more powerful than talking and writing

SOIF found a growing gap between the way that institutions typically approach engagement with the public and the more creative types of engagement that are now possible. For example, organisations like Liminal Space and Superflux have created tangible ways for people to engage with complex or contentious issues like death, fertility treatment, night working, technology surveillance and climate change. They create beauty shops to explore fertility, night clubs about nightshift working, masks that enable users to smell what a polluted space might smell like, ‘interviews’ with people using the internet of things in the future, and more. These ‘experiential’ approaches engage the whole body and allow for the whole self. Participants move, smell, feel, touch, and hear. These approaches do not exclude people who find talking, writing or even being in groups a difficult thing — and those who find ‘academic’ approaches to information and discussion off-putting or uninspiring.

5. Conversations can happen quickly
It is often assumed that it takes a long time to set up dialogues with the public. But people can be engaged quickly and regularly, particularly if we make use of technology to allow for engagement at different times.

6. Dialogue with the public is a process, not an event

These conversations between policymakers and publics cannot be one-offs. In order to live well together, societies need to keep having them. For policymakers to create the frameworks to enable cohesive living, they need to engage people of all generations and all walks of life. This includes finding ways to engage future generations. We can’t outsource the creation of civic spaces to the technology industry, or just listen to the loudest voices with the biggest platform. It is the role of governments to do this in a way that is equal, inclusive and collective.

7. Ultimately public dialogues and debates around the future (and policies) are about values

Most conversations between the public and the policy world (whether a focus group, a poll, or a referendum) are framed around a specific question; often binary choices are presented. But the better conversations about public views on issues of policy get behind stated views — they explore what members of the public value, what they think is important. People’s views — and the dialogues they inform — are full of trade-offs and choices, prioritising one set of needs against another, deciding what is fair or unfair to different groups of people, and creating a vision for the legacy we want to leave behind.

These lessons are the beginning of conversations about public engagement, not the end. There’s also a summary in a Twitter thread by Theo Bass of Sciencewise.




SOIF, the School of International Futures uses futures and foresight to help shape change for the better.

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School of International Futures

School of International Futures

SOIF, the School of International Futures uses futures and foresight to help shape change for the better.

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