//Use of specialists in dialogue – part 1

Use of specialists in dialogue – part 1

Whose expert?

Sciencewise dialogues require expertise of different types. Specialist input can enrich and expand participants’ approach to a topic and add credibility and robustness to activities and findings. But, thoughtful dialogue design means ensuring the participants’ voice remains at the heart of the work, preventing hierarchies of knowledge, and being alert to the power and privilege that comes with expertise. 

There are two key points in designing dialogues where how we introduce expertise really matters:

  1. At the beginning, framing a dialogue and the materials that participants engage with.
  2. During the dialogue activities themselves, such as giving participants access to specialists in real time to question further and engage as they develop their understanding and ideas.

This is the first of two blogs, each focusing on one of the two points above. This one will focus on point 1 – framing a dialogue and developing materials. 

Framing and perspectives 

Framing a dialogue and developing the information that participants will need starts with the Oversight Group (OG). Convening an OG means articulating the different perspectives and debates surrounding a topic, so that the OG members reflect those different perspectives. In the first OG meeting, discussions are often lively. This is as it should be. It means that OG members are exploring areas of agreement and difference and the important issues for inclusion in the dialogue. A plurality of perspectives is crucial, so that public participants are not steered towards a particular view, and the social and ethical issues at play are brought to the fore. 

OG members will often talk about language too: understanding the implications of different terms is really important to shaping information for participants in a thoughtful and accurate way. For example, in the mitochondrial DNA dialogue for the HFEA, OG members spent a long time talking about the meaning of the word “parent”.

Contractors will draw in additional expertise through desk research and stakeholder interviews or workshops, building on OG discussions and starting to shape the information they will give to participants. By the time they come to run dialogue events, the expertise and information shared with public participants has been reviewed, revised, tested and tried in pilot events. Potential specialists have been assessed for their ability to talk with a non-expert audience and the selected specialists have been fully briefed. 

Different voices, different views

Informants have the facts, advocates speak to a particular position, front line practitioners bring practical experience of how things work on the ground (as opposed to how they’re supposed to work). Experiential insights can come from anyone – for example, people with particular health conditions or working in particular jobs or using particular services. 

As well as thinking about the different types of information that participants might need, it’s worth thinking about the range of people who might convey that information or join in discussion with participants in a workshop. For example, participants will pounce on someone providing information on a particular technology when they’re seen as having skin in the game – perhaps benefiting from the roll out of a technology. So whilst that information might be important, it’s worth thinking about who should convey it during the dialogue. Is a long-standing professor needed – for example, to communicate credibility to external audiences – or will enthusiastic PhD students do just as good a job? 

It may be that no one is a specialist in a particular topic – for example, when it is very upstream. In these cases, you might use video or audio clips, character cards, scenarios…good dialogue design is both strategic and creative. The recent Future Flight dialogue provides an example of this. A range of materials, such as imaginary radio and TV clips, were used to help participants think through a future world with air taxis or air school buses to bring their kids home from school, and the potential benefits and harms of the infrastructure it would require.

What will participants need – and expect?

Presenting a range of views can stimulate discussion amongst participants. The information provided to them should make it clear that there’s no right or wrong answer to the questions they’re exploring. This gives them confidence in their own views. Sciencewise projects explore the social and ethical implications of a topic and the views of citizens involved in a dialogue are as valid as the views of people with a lot of letters after their name or an important job. 

Participants are also likely to expect a diversity of views. They will smell a rat if they think that they’re being steered in a particular direction, so information needs to be checked for suggestions that there is a “right” or “wrong” answer to the questions being asked. They might also ask for additional or different information, and good design will factor this in.

 “It was also particularly valuable to have a variety of viewpoints among the speakers. This helped ensure that participants did not feel manipulated towards a particular conclusion, and also helped them feel there was no ‘right’ answer which, in turn, made them feel more comfortable about expressing their own views.” – HFEA Hybrid & Chimera Embryos.

And if you do one thing… 

Sciencewise dialogues require expertise of different types. The most important things to consider are:

  • What information will we need – on the facts, on the debates and issues at play?
  • How will we present that information?
  • If it’s in-person, how – for example, on a panel, a single speaker, around the tables, in a two-minute pop-up…
  • If it’s in-person, who – who should present different types of information and do you need more than one person presenting on a particular issue? 

It’s always worth remembering that participants are canny: if they think that information is steering them in a particular direction, they will spot this, which will affect their trust in the process and the reason for running the dialogue in the first place. And finally – read the Sciencewise Quality Framework sections on specialists!