What is public dialogue? 2018-11-15T11:25:47+00:00

What is public dialogue?

Public dialogue provides in-depth insight into citizens’ views, concerns and aspirations on issues relating to science and technology.

As defined in the Sciencewise Guiding Principles, public dialogue is a process during which members of the public interact with scientists, stakeholders and policy makers to deliberate on issues relevant to future policy decisions.

Public dialogue enables constructive conversations amongst diverse groups of citizens on topics which are often complex or controversial.

Not only does it provide an indepth insight into public opinion, it also offers a window into understanding people’s reasoning.

Public dialogue can be used to help formulate and test policy options in the early stage of development.

It can also provide evidence on what assurances and safeguards members of the public expect if a policy area is to be taken forward.

This improved understanding helps policy makers to mitigate potential risks.

Although Sciencewise focuses on issues relating to science and technology, public dialogue can be used to inform other policy areas. For example, a citizens’ jury, which is a form of public dialogue, was held to inform the long-term funding of social care.

The section below explains the typical components of a public dialogue funded by the Sciencewise programme.

Typical components of a dialogue project

A public dialogue must have a clear and well-defined purpose, and it must engage with policy questions.

The process is tailored to the specific circumstances of the topic and decision-making process.

Participants are recruited to be broadly reflective of the population in the countries or regions where dialogue activities take place.  The delivery contractor recruits to predetermined demographic quotas (e.g. 50% men and 50% women) using well-established methods.

The number of citizens participating in a Sciencewise funded dialogue project ranges from 30 to over 300.  Sometimes, dialogue workshops will be supplemented with surveys or digital tools, enabling a project to reach a larger number of people (e.g. over 1000).

Sciencewise funded projects are guided by an oversight group comprising stakeholders with an interest in the policy area. The oversight group must include a diverse range of opinions and interests in a topic, as one of their primary roles is to ensure that the process and materials are balanced.

Scientists and policy experts take part in public workshops. Their role includes listening to and engaging in discussions with the publics involved, providing information when required, exploring participants’ ideas and sharing their reflections on what they have heard.

A public dialogue may also include dedicated stakeholder workshops. These are usually held at the start and/or end of a project.

Sciencewise funded projects are designed and facilitated by independent contractors with a track record of delivering successful dialogue projects.

We support the lead government body to appoint an experienced contractor using the Sciencewise framework of dialogue delivery contractors.

Interactive workshops, typically lasting a half day or full day, are at the heart of Sciencewise dialogues.

Workshops are designed around the requirements of the particular topic.  Information and evidence are provided in a variety of forms, including oral presentations, videos and written materials.  There is always a lot of time for questions and discussion. Participants are encouraged to share and develop their views and to deliberate on the implications of the information they have reviewed.

Typically, workshops are repeated, enabling the same participants to meet two, or sometimes more times over the course of the project.  This allows time for individual reflection between workshops.

Sciencewise funded projects are independently evaluated. An evaluator is appointed from the Sciencewise framework of evaluation contractors.  The evaluator will assess the early impacts of a project on the stakeholders involved. The Sciencewise programme team continues to monitor impacts in the months and years following the conclusion of a project.

Sciencewise co-funds projects where there is a clear plan for outputs to inform policy development and decisions.  The evaluator will assess the extent to which the commissioning body has disseminated the findings to key stakeholders and wider audiences and, through interviews, what impact these findings have had.

Public dialogue and other engagement methods

What makes dialogue stand out from other public engagement methods is the high degree of in-depth discussion and outputs that it generates.

Public dialogue shares some features in common with social research and other engagement methods. However, Sciencewise public dialogues place a particular emphasis on the following:

  • Independent oversight, ensuring a diverse range of views and interests inform the project framing, the questions asked and the information provided
  • Publics and experts (both scientific and policy) deliberating together on the ethical and social issues raised by the science
  • Publics being involved in problem solving and balancing the tensions and trade-offs posed by controversial innovations
  • Building scope into the design for adapting the framing, and questions asked, in response to participants’ interests
  • Providing experts with insight into the range of perspectives held by the public: these can then be tested by social research
  • Giving participants tailored feedback about the report findings and impact
  • Independent evaluation, providing assurance of a robust process and the credibility of the findings

More about public dialogue

“[Its] strength came from the depth of the discussion – it seemed to open up the deep and personal views of attendees who had, through exposure to the issues, begun to explore what the issues meant to them.”
Stakeholder, Living with Environmental Change dialogue