The right way for a public say

May 25, 2001

How should science consult the citizen? Gene Rowe looks at the most effective ways to involve lay people.

Involving the public in societal matters is in fashion, particularly with regard to understanding and governing science and technology. Most people seem to agree that increased involvement is "a good thing". Even those against it grudgingly admit it is a political necessity. But what do we really mean by involvement? How should we do it? And why is it a good thing anyway?

There is a distinction between public communication and public participation. The two concepts differ according to the aims of those who sponsor a particular involvement exercise. Public communication is about transferring information to the public, or part of it. In essence, the people are assumed to be ill-informed and the sponsor wishes to rectify this.

Often the sponsor's motives are laudable. For example, the scientific community is engaged in an ongoing campaign to enlighten the public about the wonders of science. But at its heart, communication is based on the premise that the sponsors know things that the public do not, and the central issue is how to transfer that knowledge in an effective way.

Public participation is a different thing altogether. Its central tenet is that the people should have a role in setting agendas and policies, making decisions and so on. At its simplest, public participation may involve surveying views through questionnaires or a focus group. The sponsor then uses such views as it sees fit.

At another level, dialogue is arranged between the sponsors and the people. The most popular method of achieving this has been the public meeting, in which a limited number of citizens listen to the opinions of "authority", before being given a few minutes to express opinions and ask questions. Often considered little more than public relations exercises in which little real influence is conceded, such meetings have been widely derided.

In this light, a growing number of alternative methods have been developed to enable more meaningful participation. One of these, currently popular with government, is the recruitment of "lay" members onto advisory committees. A small number of people, assumed to be representative of some wider sub-set of the population, are co-opted into bodies comprising a larger number of appropriate experts. It is assumed that the value-driven views of the public minority may counter the majority views of the prestigious experts and thereby exert direct influence on policy formation.

More recent innovative methods such as the citizens' jury and consensus conference use groups comprised solely of members of the public. These bring a select number of lay persons together to discuss a particular topic of concern to the sponsor. To redress the assumed knowledge deficit of the public, expert testimony is provided by carefully chosen savants. The participants write up their conclusions (with help from a facilitator) and pass these to the sponsor. Of course, whether the sponsor acts on these conclusions is a separate matter.

So, are these methods any good? Until recently, the concept of evaluation seemed almost a dirty word. Some would argue that, because the act of engaging the public is worthwhile, any attempt should be regarded as a success. After all, one might argue that if "x" more people have received certain information than before, or "y" more were involved in the agenda-setting process, the exercise achieved its intent.

From this perspective, evaluation is unnecessary. Even when evaluation took place, it was usually done by counting the numbers through the door or by asking those involved whether they thought the experience was worthwhile. A sponsor might also consider an exercise a success if it came up with a solution it could live with.

But these assessments are highly limited. For example, is a communication exercise effective if the participants have misunderstood the information that they were meant to absorb? Similarly, is a participation exercise effective if the participants say nothing or their views are ignored?

In both cases, counting numbers involved gives a false sense of achievement. There are signs in certain areas of government that the uncritical application of involvement methods is no longer acceptable. When taxpayers' money ultimately funds such exercises, there is a need to justify expenditure and prove that money has not been wasted. It is no longer acceptable to suggest that the act in itself is worthy enough.

How one evaluates such diverse involvement procedures is an open question, but it is one that researchers are attempting to address. Successful evaluation may also lead to the development of new approaches designed to cope with flaws identified with older ones, and so improve communication and participation in the future. And that would be "a good thing".

Gene Rowe is a senior researcher at the Institute of Food Research, Norwich.

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