March 22, 2013, by Alison Mohr

Which Publics? When?

by Alison Mohr, Lecturer in Science and Technology Studies, University of Nottingham with Beverley Gibbs and Sujatha Raman

This post was originally written for the Sciencewise-ERC blog:

Part 1: Which publics should be invited to a public dialogue?In the discussions around public dialogue the term ‘public’ is often taken for granted. However the decision about which definition of the public to use has a major impact on the results. In a series of two blog posts I will look at the two questions of which publics do we choose to engage with and when do we choose to engage them. These questions in the context of public dialogue are inextricably linked to notions of representativeness and legitimacy. Concepts of ‘publics’, ‘representativeness’ and ‘legitimacy’ are all contested in both studies of publics and public dialogue. Moreover, these concepts are contested in the reality of dialogue experiments and the translation of their outcomes into policy recommendations. Confronting these practical and policy challenges are at the heart of a short programme of work that Sciencewise, the government-funded expert resource centre dedicated to supporting public dialogue around science and technology, has commissioned the Institute for Science and Society to undertake. This work aims to increase understanding and promote debate regarding the following questions:

– When and for what is the use of different publics legitimate?
– What is the value of involving publics other than representative samples?
– When and for what is a self-selected sample legitimate?
– What role can civil society groups or organisations (with no direct stake in an issue) play in engaging their members on an issue?

To shed light on these questions, we are exploring a number of interrelated practical and policy challenges, which we identify below:

Is there such a thing as a right or a wrong public?

Which publics should be engaged in dialogue depends on a range of different conditions, such as the topic, methodology, budget and objectives. There are very different views on what is legitimate. Dialogues have been seen as a way of hearing the voices of those missing or excluded from current debate. However, this notion of the ‘ordinary public’ has sometimes led to a view that participatory exercises should not be ‘biased’ by organised publics with an active voice. To give an example, the GM Nation public meetings were criticised for being dominated by organised environmental groups and for a failure to engage with people without fixed views on GM. However, others have countered this view, arguing that an abstract vision of an atomised public ignores the existence of the real (already existing) living body politic, where class fractions, organised movements, networks in civil society, the private sector, academia and Government already mediate public responses to science.

Representative of what or whom?

The term representativeness is widely understood to mean the degree to which participants embody the socio-demographic characteristics of the affected population. However, the representativeness of participation – that is, the diversity of opinions expressed – may not necessarily translate into representativeness in the outcome. In practice, a diversity of outcomes is often inhibited by the particular method, process and reporting of dialogue, which thus may lead to problems of democratic legitimacy. Elsewhere we have written about how the 2008 BBSRC/MRC/Sciencewise Stem Cell Dialogue’s twin goals of diversity of participation and perspectives did not translate, in practice, into diversity of outcomes.

Policy makers should consider the following factors when determining what type of public to invite to a dialogue:

• What are the practical constraints on the type of public that can be assembled? The resources, infrastructure and methodologies available will, to an extent, determine what type of public to invite.

• When should publics be (un)engaged, (un)informed? When is neutrality (not) of value? The question of which public is in part dependent on a clear understanding of the purpose of the dialogue, what the output is expected to be and how the output will be used in the policy process. For example, publics can be carefully assembled for a specific purpose, or free to engage due to a more experimental dialogue design that allows their views to emerge without the constraints of a structured process; or the dialogue may benefit from a mixture of both.

• What qualities are the public expected to bring to the dialogue? For example, is it specific knowledge or neutral opinions, because they represent the affected public or a diversity of perspectives (although, in practice, these qualities can be distorted by the particular process, rationale and reporting of dialogue)?

• How would the ‘ideal’ public change across the policy development cycle? Different publics may be used in different ways and at different points in the policy decision making cycle. For example, different publics may be more suited to helping formulate the policy problem while others may be more suited to capturing evidence of local practices.

In the next blog post we will look at the timing of a dialogue project, which is equally complex.

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