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Open Public Workshops

Introduction

Open public workshops bring together members of the public to deliberate on an issue, allowing organisers to develop an understanding of their opinions and the thought processes and values that underpin them. The open nature of the workshops means any member of the public may attend.

Participants are presented with information on a topic from ‘specialists’ to facilitate group exercises where participants can critically discuss the views of the group, allowing them to develop their own in the process. This gives organisers an opportunity to see how participants’ beliefs and views change in response to information or deliberation on an issue.

The expert information is intended to cover the current state of a topic and possible future developments, giving people an opportunity to explore how policy intervention could affect society in the longer term.

Click here for details of the tool characteristics.

Best Practice Examples

Gathering evidence for policy making

Drones: What’s Next? run by the Science Museum with support from Sciencewise, will inform the Department for Transport and Ministry of Defence’s forthcoming policy on the use of drones and respond to a House of Lords call for evidence on civil use of remotely piloted aircraft systems.

When to use and not use an open public workshop

Use an open public workshop to:

•    Inform and involve participants. This may be particularly relevant for emerging or complex issues, where participants may benefit from increased information
•    Gain an understanding of which specific issues within a topic are of particular concern to members of the public
•    Observe how participants’ viewpoints change in response to certain information. This may inform decisions on which information should be released to the wider public, and how it is done.

Don’t use an open public workshop to:

•    Understand the views of a specific demographic
•    Understand the private views/beliefs of individuals. The structure of the workshops mean discussions are open to influence from social cues, norms and expectations
•     Understand the views of the general public, as they have not experienced the deliberative process and the workshops are self-selecting.

How to conduct an open public workshop

1  Establish a setting and time

Due to the open nature of the workshop, specific participants are not recruited and the group is self-selecting. The contextual factors of the workshop therefore have a significant influence on the composition of the participating group. When choosing venue care should be taken to ensure it is accessible to the target group. Academic environments such as universities and museums are likely to attract different people to more informal social venues such as cafes and community centres.  

The timing of the event plays a similar role. Holding an event during 9-5 hours will present a barrier for those who work during those hours, for example.

2  Recruit participants and specialists, and communicate clearly with your audience

The event promotion strategy will also influence the make-up of the group, as different communication channels are accessed by different audiences. It is helpful to emphasise the interactive and informative nature of the workshop, as the opportunity to build relationships with other participants and gain new knowledge and skills are benefits that may increase participation.  

It should also be clear that comments from the event will be collected and may influence policy, so that potential participants can consider if they consent to this.  

Specialists should be recruited with a range of backgrounds that reflect the full scope of the workshop topic. Sourcing specialists can be done in a number of ways, such as social media analysis  or utilising links within your department. Some universities also offer ‘Find an Expert’ services, which allow users to filter through academics by area of expertise.

3  Design the workshop, and carry it out

The desired outcomes from the workshop guide the structure of the workshop. If a primary outcome is to identify areas within a broad topic the public are concerned about, sessions should be flexible in timings and less directed, so the topics of conversation should be allowed to emerge organically. If there the focus lies more on how views change with the provision of new information, the release of this information should take a staged, structured format. The majority of time should be allocated to participant discussions to allow deeper and varied discussion within the groups.

Prior to the event, specialists presenting or observing should be clearly briefed to understand their role. Use of facilitators ensures participants’ views are heard and valued equally, and that the most is made of the workshop time. An open environment should be developed so participants feel able to discuss freely.

There are many tools that may be used in a deliberative workshop, use of which depends on factors such as group sizes, workshop aims and nature of the topic. Participants may express their views individually through tools such as voting cards, in addition to contributing to group discussions. Lastly, materials used must accommodate different preferences for receiving information (i.e written, visually)

For most exercises plenary feedback should be used to confirm participants agree with the interpretations of the discussions.

4  Keep participants informed

After the event, participants should be kept up to date of how their input is being used. This avoids any feelings of tokenistic involvement, and can help to build up trust and respect.  How this is done may be influenced by the method of recruitment- If online sign-ups are used, participants could be emailed with outcomes and updates, whilst for drop-in events hard report copies could be given to the venue of the workshop.

Tools

Policy Lab, futures toolkit and Seeds for Change facilitation tools contain a range of activities for use during open public workshops.  

Benefits

Open public workshops:
•    Provide participants with the time and resources to consider an issue in-depth, including costs, benefits and long-term consequences
•    Allow participants to become informed or develop their own views through critical discussion with others
•    It can build and improve relationships between participants;
•    Involving citizens in a deliberative workshop can be empowering and provide new knowledge and skills. Participants can act as spokespeople for the process which in some cases can strengthen the legitimacy of the process.

To be aware of

•    Judgements is required how the discussions are framed, how information is disseminated to participants and how to mage participants. Experienced facilitators are therefore critical
•    Participants' views are developed through provision of information and deliberation, meaning that their final views may not be representative of those that have not experienced this process
•    ‘Hard to reach’ populations are unlikely to be involved as there is no active recruitment of them

Other Resources

More information on deliberative workshops can be found in the participation compass

Open public workshop characteristics