June 20, 2013

Citizens and Publics

Filed under: Uncategorized — Nanasha @ 3:15 pm

by Roland Jackson, Sciencewise Executive Chair

Public 3Who or what is, or are, ‘the public’ or ‘publics’? This might not seem like a very interesting question, but for those seeking to further public involvement in policy-making, through the sorts of deliberative approaches which Sciencewise champions, it is rather important to understand.

Sciencewise has just published a new paper ‘Which Publics? When?’  to stimulate discussion on this issue, developed by Alison Mohr, Sujatha Raman and Beverley Gibbs at the Institute for Science and Society, University of Nottingham.

It tackles questions of representativeness and of the choices about the ways in which policy makers, with the support of agents like Sciencewise, bring members of the public into deliberative processes. ‘Ordinary’ members of the public might be seen as those who do not have specific pre-existing and visible stakes in the issue through membership of, for example, specific campaigning or civil society groups. But the process of organising such a deliberative dialogue creates a public in its own right – as a group of individuals who come together in a shared activity within public policy-making. As the authors say ‘The difference between campaigning, civil society, and latent (or currently unengaged) publics is not a rigid one – and nor should it be expected to be established firmly so that dialogue can focus on the latter to the exclusion of the former. Not being an organised stakeholder is not the same as having no stake in the matter.’ It is important in a deliberative dialogue that all views are capable of being heard and that the process is inclusive to allow sufficiently diverse voices, whether pre-organised or not, to contribute. The choice of which publics to invite or engage with becomes very important. For example when looking at bovine TB it might include farmers, vets and members of the public not directly involved from both rural and urban backgrounds, in addition to environmental groups and the scientific community.

Yet reading through this thought-provoking and useful piece I couldn’t help a nagging feeling that this word ‘public’ is part of the problem. This was brought home to me at the recent meeting of the Sciencewise Steering Group when Innes Newman, one of the members from the Citizen Group (Sciencewise has a ‘Citizen Group’, not a ‘Public Group’ as part of the governance structure) asked whether the word ‘citizen’ wasn’t rather better than ‘public’. It seems a more inclusive term, with immediate resonances of democracy and participation, breaking down the sometimes implicit barrier between ‘us’ who organise public dialogues and ‘they’ who participate.

We have a burgeoning citizen science movement; time perhaps for citizen dialogue rather than public dialogue.

6 Responses to “Citizens and Publics”

  1. Nick Mahony says:

    I wanted to respond to this last point. In my view, changing the terminology – from ‘public’ to ‘citizen’ – is unlikely to address the important points highlighted and framed in your new ScienceWise report ‘Which Publics? When?’. The term citizen has a complicated and rich history and a lively, multifarious and contested set of associations, just as the term public has. More importantly, it’s difficult to see how changing terms in this way is likely to break down very deeply entrenched barriers to engagement. As you also say, this is a thought-provoking and thoughtful piece. One that contains plenty of ideas about how it might be possible to take a fresh look at some of these barriers. Therefore more investment may instead be required in following up on, debate and publicly test-out some of these fascinating and timely ideas.

  2. Roland Jackson says:

    I suspect you’re right, though I do think that changing rhetoric/language/terminology does stimulate people to think about meaning. But eventually we seem to run out of words!

  3. Interesting how we seek to deconstruct such complex matters by dealing with the terms that orbit the discussion; so I’ll add my own. I like to use the word “community”. A policy decision creates a community of interests that are touched at differing levels by that decision (directly, indirectly, intentionally, in an unintended way, or simply by a perceived impact, or interest). The implication is that every decision creates its own unique community; a set of inter-related interests, some organized and some not. In my view the problem is more taking the time and giving the energy to identify that range of interests and then facilitate representative access to the dialogue processes that influence policy-making.

    Agree that citizen is a loaded word with diminishing relevance in our ever-increasing inter-connect and transient world, when it comes to the value of bringing legitimacy to public policy decisions.

  4. Roland Jackson says:

    That’s a good way of looking at it. Interesting though that ‘community dialogue’ tends to imply ‘local’ to me whereas ‘citizen dialogue’ has a wider feel. But that may just be me.

  5. Agree Roland, I think citizen is one step better. I have been wrestling with this for many years in relation to business engagement and we still plump for the dreaded ’stakeholder’. Which is so much worse in so many ways, but has the advantage of immediately bringing to mind those other than the general public which I find, particularly in the research community, is where ‘public engagement’ begins and ends.

    One has to remember that the general public do see NGOs and consumer groups as trustworthy independent groups who are working on their behalf, but in certain communities there is a real disinclination to engage with ‘them’ and focus on public events and comms projects which are easier to organise, less challenging and tick most of the boxes.

    So I think I will stick with stakeholder for that reason alone, at least it gets a response and gets the conversation going!

  6. Y’know, I’m wondering if we could be more creative with the simple word ‘people’ which might do the trick in a lot of contexts.

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