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National Ecosystem Assessment dialogue informs new approaches to public engagement

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The independent evaluation report on the UK National Ecosystem Assessment dialogue was published in March 2016. This covers the public dialogue project delivered by the University of Exeter and run in partnership with Defra and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) with support from Sciencewise. The project started in December 2013, and the dialogue report was published in June 2015.

The context for the project was that the initial process for the UK National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA), published in 2011, identified a number of key uncertainties in its evidence base and the mechanisms and means by which NEA science can be translated into policy and decision making. The Government therefore supported a two-year NEA follow-on (NEA-FO) phase.

The purpose of the public dialogue project was to open up the methods, analyses and findings of the NEA (and NEA-FO) process to public scrutiny: inspecting and testing its assumptions; highlighting potential areas of public sensitivity and concern; and offering public insight into the ways in which NEA thinking might help inform credible policy and practice toward the environment. By exposing the reasoning and work of the NEA to broad citizen scrutiny, the intention was that policy development processes would be better placed to understand where risks and opportunities associated with the use of NEA science lie.

The project was unusual in being delivered by the University of Exeter; staff were responsible for the design design of the dialogue events, producing the stimulus materials, the delivery and lead facilitation of the events  (support facilitation and recruitment were sub-contracted) as well as analysis and reporting. The evaluation concluded that there had been “a thorough dialogue design, strong facilitation at the whole group and small group levels, effective input from specialists at all stages of the dialogue, as well as an appropriate management process that has kept the Oversight Group up-to-date and engaged”. In particular, conclusions from the dialogue were seen to be robust because of rigorous analysis which identified and reported nuanced differences in the discussions.

The evaluation report identifies that impacts for policy makers and other key stakeholders included that the dialogue had informed their thinking “as well as providing an evidence base with more specific implications to inform policy” . There were also specific ideas emerging from the public discussions that stakeholders said they will explore further, in particular the concept of investment for ecosystems services (rather than payment) and an independent ‘Environment Trust’. Stakeholders also pointed to the value of the dialogue report in providing powerful evidence that could persuade colleagues of the value of dialogue, in particular recognising that the public can engage with discussions about the complexity of the environment, and also respond well to being engaged in this way.

Other specific impacts of the public dialogue identified by stakeholders included:

•    One group of of participants from the Birmingham dialogue acted as a sounding board for the development of a community level Natural Capital Planning tool by Birmingham City Council.

•    Natural Resources Wales reported that the dialogue had informed practical work they were undertaking in three trial areas eliciting stakeholder views for informing area statements. They also said the report was informing their knowledge gap about socio-economic evidence in relation to natural resource management and strategic monitoring, within the context of the new Environment Bill in Wales.

The nature of the dialogue report means there are likely to be continued impacts in the longer term. Specific areas of potential impact included: Clyde Forum looking at working with the Glasgow panel; the findings feeding into strategy thinking and conservation strategy at Natural England; informing future work of the Natural Capital Committee  to develop a 25-year plan to restore the UK’s biodiversity; service co-production in relation to Public Service Reform in Scotland; work by Natural Resources Wales around the Wellbeing and Future Generations Bill looking at integrating social and public goods (including environmental protection, health and quality of life); and NERC’s Valuing Nature Programme.

Evaluation of a public dialogue on the UK National Ecosystem Assessment, by Dr Will Medd, 3KQ.  March 2016.