By Suzannah Lansdell, Dialogue and Engagement Specialist, Sciencewise
I was the Sciencewise Dialogue and Engagement Specialist working on the Openness in Animal Research public dialogue. The public dialogue fed into the development of the draft Concordat which was consulted on last autumn and the final Concordat was recently launched.
From the outset it was recognised the dialogue would have challenges – the timing and resourcing was tight, the subject matter challenging and the sector one that has been largely behind closed doors for many years. The risks were, in short, quite high.
Despite that the public dialogue was, reading the evaluation report, pretty successful. It provided evidence to the group of organisations developing the Concordat that what they were drafting was going to be on the right track and it gave confidence that this was the right thing to do.
I have worked with many organisations who struggle internally with what is the “right thing to do” – in the face of criticism and anger from their stakeholders, their public or customers. Too often the response is to stay hunkered down in the trenches – to not engage with the difficult conversations because well…it is too difficult. And of course it is – conversations mediated through the press or through PR and grandstanding do little to really help find the right ways forward or encourage movement towards that. Such situations tend to make organisations defensive and “closed” and by default less likely to make moves in line with public expectations.
This public dialogue offered the opportunity to help give evidence to the group of organisations developing the Concordat that what they were drafting was going to be on the right track – whether it was in line with or out of kilter with public expectations for the sector.
“Hard evidence that sets out in detail what the public want regarding openness”. Working Group member (Evaluation report)
But as well as evidence it gave confidence that this was the right thing to do:
Public dialogue helps policy makers understand the hopes, fears and expectations of the public at a deeper level. To give confidence to be braver or to recognise when it may be a step too far and to be more careful and conservative in their approach or indeed change course completely.
“The dialogue has given more weight to the argument that openness is needed. It has convinced some of the more sceptical members and individuals”. Working Group member (Evaluation report)
Some may view the Concordat as not going far enough in a quest for greater openness and transparency on animal research. Whilst the content of the final Concordat is of course vital for many stakeholders, for me there was another aspect to the public dialogue, the process of getting there in the first place.
Pubic dialogue is about informing the content or the output of a policy or initiative, making sure it is in line with public expectations. But it is also in doing so about changing the process by which such evidence is gained and building organisational and stakeholder confidence in creating a different way to engage with public and stakeholders alike.
A key requirement for Sciencewise supported dialogues is that they represent the range of perspectives – a key challenge for this dialogue where the topic is one that has seen little constructive dialogue.
To get to a point of having public participants in a room discussing the issue of expectations of openness on animal research, there was a huge amount of effort undertaken by the Oversight Group, the contractors and the range of stakeholders from across the spectrum of interests who challenged and questioned to make sure that what and how the information provided to the public was fair and balanced and reflected the range of views on the issue.
The starting point was to make sure the Oversight Group was not just made up of those directly involved in animal research, next a stakeholder workshop inputted to the scope of materials, this was followed by additional conversations with stakeholder groups and opportunities for input into drafts of materials. Finally at the public dialogue workshops specialist input was carefully considered in terms of who should provide clarifications for participants and how the range of perspectives should be conveyed to public participants. Video inputs were provided – including different specialists talking about their perspectives and the challenges of openness, together with footage of animal research procedures.
If we did it again I am sure we would do some things differently as the evaluation report has highlighted. But for me I hope that even that process was a small step on the journey to the sector building some confidence in engaging in a different way with its stakeholders.