By Reema Patel, Sciencewise Policy Analyst
I recently attended a public dialogue session run by Sciencewise on food systems – bringing together a group of 25 people with different demographic characteristics with experts and stakeholders to deliberate upon the challenges facing food supply across the world. The dialogues have been commissioned by the Government Office for Science with Which? - the consumer rights association - and their purpose was to better understand the public’s views on current food system problems, challenges and opportunities. Attending that day in my new role as a policy analyst for Sciencewise, I had the opportunity to make some observations about the nature of public dialogues, their uniqueness and the specific contributions that they make for enabling deeper conversation between policy-makers, decision makers and experts.
Public dialogues often take a full day to commence and involve various stages, including the presentation of information, an oversight of the issues involved, the opportunity for the group to brainstorm and articulate what they feel the challenges and opportunities are, and the opportunities to feed back a range of views to others as well as to sum up consensus and points of difference. These outputs are then part of the basis for a report available to the commissioning body.
The day kicked off with a balanced overview of some of the issues and a short introduction brokered by independent facilitators, followed by an illustration of different and new techniques for addressing food shortage with a short explanation. Information was supplied in different formats as well – with videos of scientists speaking as well as representatives of Which?’s food safety team present for conversation. The group broke off into two to create a smaller forum for discussion – and the conversation was facilitated to draw out points of consensus as well as difference.
Key to the skill of good facilitation for deliberative dialogue was to draw out those who were less vocal than others and to present questions that worked to ‘dig deeper’ into ethical intuitions people had – in many instances, the ‘why?’ technique was deployed – a statement objecting to a specific technique followed with the question ‘why do you object?’. That placed participants in a position of thinking through their reactions and the foundations and rationale supporting their views. Following from these techniques, debates and points of difference about what mattered more emerged – solving world poverty at any cost, or prioritising the quality of food and the impact of that food in the longer term on individuals was a question of especial debate and difference for participants. Many participants felt that some forms of intervention into the food system were more acceptable than others – and that tended to vary widely – with some more at ease with the genetic modification of food than others, and some more at ease with the idea of feeding insects to animals in the food supply chain than others as part of addressing food shortage.
Throughout the day it became increasingly apparent to me that public dialogue works and differs from other forms of dialogue and engagement – say, a written consultation, a survey or a focus group for three key reasons -
1) Deliberation and Conversation - Firstly it offers the time and the space to engage in debate, conversation and reasoning about issues where there are often grey areas and to understand points of disagreement that often conflict with one’s own. Some of these involve questions that address fundamental value judgements. They may also involve discussions about addressing gaps in knowledge, or understanding that others’ motivations differ from one’s own – recognising that finding the most optimal solution from a social welfare perspective may differ greatly from an individual perspective.
2) Informed Thought - Secondly, it allows for informed thought and the drawing of fine distinctions in line with additional information provided. This matters, firstly because it insulates members of the public against objections that they do not understand the issue they are working with. It is also a cornerstone of true democracy in action. It enables members of the public to ask experts and stakeholders questions about the techniques proposed and possible, and to raise ethical concerns about those issues.
3) Agreement (Even If To Disagree) – The idea behind a public dialogue is to be able to encapsulate the views expressed in a considered way so that it can then inform government decision-making. This may be in the form of reports or presentations to key stakeholders – and will often reflect the difference in views expressed or conflict where that remains. That is particularly relevant and significant on issues that involve widespread difference in public decision-making (for example, on fracking, or on mitochondrial replacement therapy – a public dialogue which was drawn upon extensively in the recent House of Commons vote in favour of the therapy).
To sum up, it is the depth of information available, combined with creating the conditions and environment (time, space, good facilitation) enabling deeper deliberation and discussion which makes for deeper dialogue. It allows for a conversation to take place that equips the public with the equal footing and the tools required to shape the conversation. In response to food system techniques – the reactions of those present were many, diverse and varied. Dialogue took those points of difference and ensured that those who differed in viewpoints engaged with and learnt from each other – as well as from experts and policy-makers. That tripartite relationship, more than anything, is a distinguishing mark of public dialogue.