//Don’t stand so close to me: dialogue in the time of distancing

Don’t stand so close to me: dialogue in the time of distancing

The dialogue and engagement world is abuzz with chatter about online tools.  Covid-19 has forced us all – practitioners, advisers and commissioners – to look anew at how we engage effectively with citizens when we can’t sit around a table together.

The requirement for social distancing means public engagement as usually practised is not possible, but public engagement remains crucial.  As the lockdown lifts, we will have choices and trade-offs to make and citizens must, of necessity, be involved in making those choices and balancing those trade-offfs.  And when decisions are being made at speed, engagement needs to happen at speed too.

Sciencewise deliberative public dialogues are known internationally for their quality and the robustness of the evidence they generate.  What is less well known is that lighter touch, rapid face-to-face and online data gathering activities have been part of our projects since Sciencewise began.

In 2014, a public dialogue on the strategy for the elimination of bovine TB used an online tool called Vizzata.  Over a 12 day period, citizens were provided with information to comment on and question, with specialists responding to questions.  Whilst not dialogic, the process was deliberative, and provides a snapshot of how rapidly we can gain insight into citizens’ views.  A couple of years later, in a project exploring homeowners’ views on low carbon heating technologies for the Committee on Climate Change, we used Sounding Board, an online tool designed explicitly for projects where time and resourcing constraints rule out more in-depth deliberative dialogue projects. In the same year, Food Futures, a project for Global Food Security, paired a year long online panel with face-to-face workshops. This allowed for a mixed methods approach, with rapid result online activities combined with deliberative dialogue workshops.

Sciencewise dialogue projects often include smaller discussion groups. The recent project on online targeting, for the CDEI, included a number of small groups in addition to the full public dialogue workshops. Quick to set up and straightforward to run face-to-face or online, using video conferencing tools, discussion groups give you rapid qualitative insight into people’s hopes, concerns, priorities and preferences.  Less deliberative but more dialogic, in online processes they can complement the deliberative elements of text-based tools and platforms.

Much of the challenge at present is less about what we can do online: we can do a lot, and there are lots of tools out there.  Rather, the challenge is – as it is with any dialogue – in designing good processes that meet the needs of policy makers. If those needs include getting results rapidly, that is factored into the design and can be achieved online and face-to-face.  It’s about knowing what tools and approaches are available, understanding the level of robustness required for the outputs and what methods will produce that.  Our recent project for Genomics England asked big questions and informed important decisions:  a pacier and more streamlined process would not have been appropriate. For other projects, however, online (and, given time, face-to-face) channels allow for work at a pace that will provide rapid insights.

Sciencewise brings over 15 years experience of advising policy makers on commissioning public engagement projects that will meet their resource and timing pressures:  at present, these pressures are extreme, but the need for good engagement has not gone away.

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