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5 January 2015

‘Engaging the public for better policy’ workshop questions – part 7

Filed under: — Posted by Nanasha @ 1:53pm

By Alexandra Humphris-Bach, Sciencewise Knowledge Sharing Manager

WebThe seventh in our Sciencewise Q&A blog series responds to “Where do you find the members of the public that get involved in the dialogue – how do you choose and/or invite them? How many do you involve?”

Most dialogue projects use dedicated recruitment experts to recruit public participants. As part of the planning process, careful consideration will be given to the recruitment selection criteria – such as representation of local and national demographics, and the number of people we need to engage with in order to provide meaningful input to policy makers. These criteria will differ from project to project as they need to be tailored to the specific policy issue in question.

I asked Suzannah Lansdell, Sciencewise Dialogue Engagement Specialist, to comment on the recruitment of public participants for dialogue projects…

“Public dialogues to inform policy or decision making typically involve a relatively small number of participants – i.e. not the type of numbers you would see in opinion polling for example. Of course, we need enough participants to represent a range of different and diverse views and fit the purpose for the dialogue project.

“There is often a theoretical optimum number of participants, beyond which there are diminishing returns from adding more participants in terms of the diversity of contributions versus rising costs (particularly in facilitation and analysis). In part the numbers you might want to involve come from the nature of the topic, how mature it is and the sorts of possible variables you might need to encompass for the number of participants to be robust and deemed appropriate. For example, if it were a contentious topic that may have already been reasonably well aired in the press it is likely that you would want to extend the numbers of public participants involved not least to counter the accusation of the group not being extensive enough to hold enough weight. You may also want to extend the number of locations in which you undertake the dialogue to ensure discussions are not biased by being too location specific. The recent dialogue on Public Engagement in Shale Gas and Oil developments covered locations where both there may be shale gas exploitation and locations where that was very unlikely.

“Using dedicated recruitment experts, participants are chosen, usually through on street recruitment, – the aim of which is to involve a selection of people who might represent the widest possible set of views, values and demographics. For each project there are likely to be specific aspects that are also considered in the selection criteria. For example a recent project I worked on specifically wanted to hear from the over 75 age category. Or a proportion may be wanted who have particularly strong views on a topic. Beyond that the general criteria are a mix of demographics and broadly reflective of the location in which the workshops are likely to take place. Some public participants may also be screened out in the recruitment process to ensure there is no inbuilt bias to the dialogue– for example if they work in a particular sector or have undertaken a similar dialogue exercise in the last 12 months.

“We also aim to ensure that no relevant participants are excluded from taking part, with special measures to access hard-to-reach groups where appropriate, including considerations of appropriate venues, timing and technical equipment in line with the Equality Act 2010.

“As stated in the Sciencewise Guiding Principles, public dialogue does not claim to be fully representative, rather it is a group of the public who – after adequate information, discussion, access to specialists and time to deliberate – form considered advice which gives strong indications of how the public at large feels about certain issues. The methodology and results need to be robust enough to provide credible results, and give policy makers a good basis on which to make policy.

“It’s also important to remember that public dialogue projects do not necessarily use just one methodology, but take a mixed approach which can involve varying numbers of participants and which all seek differing ranges and depths of feedback to build a more rich and complete picture. For example, The Health Research Authority Patient and Public Views dialogue project involved eight public workshops, with 60 public participants across four locations in England (Bristol, London, Manchester and Newcastle), eight workshops involving 68 patients and carers, and a face-to-face survey of 1,295 public respondents. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority’s Mitochondrial Replacement dialogue used a variety of methods including public dialogue workshops, open public consultation meetings, patient focus group, on-line consultation website and questionnaire and a face to face survey of 1000 people.

“Experience has shown us that the public are interested in participating in science and technology issues, enjoy the process, and see the value and importance of public dialogue. Given the right information, support and time, the public can participate in discussions on complex or contentious subjects. Many policy makers and experts have been impressed with the speed at which public participants can pick up complex issues and can throw light on aspects that those closest to the topic may not have realised.

“Evaluations of public dialogues indicate that public participants have an appetite for taking part, and enjoy and value being involved in what they consider to be important discussions.”


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