By Sam Hinton, Sciencewise
Last week I travelled to Salisbury to attend my first Sciencewise funded public dialogue event.
The daylong event was the second of three workshops being held in Salisbury as part of a public dialogue on the use of drones, which has been commissioned by the Department for Transport (DfT) and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) with support from Sciencewise.
The dialogue provides members of the public with information about drones – their capabilities, uses and opportunities as well as potential risks and issues. The public are guided through various pieces of information and encouraged to ask questions and to share their thoughts, concerns and aspirations. Experts are on hand to answer questions but not lead or dominate the conversation. The event I attended had representatives from the Police, DfT, the Civil Aviation Authority, an aviation lawyer and people who use drones commercially.
The aim of dialogue is for the public to deliberate on the issues involved rather than provide instant feedback. By enabling members of the public to consider and question the information provided over the course of three days and discuss all the issues with one another, the government can gain public input to their policy making that has been forged after grappling with a wide range of issues. Speaking to one participant during a coffee break he told me that he had come along to the first session with one area of concern in mind but as the events had gone on he could see there were other issues which he felt were more important. His first concern hadn’t gone away but he felt the focus needed to be elsewhere. Seeing deliberative dialogue pull out in-depth feedback like this is always encouraging.
It was clear from my day in Salisbury that the public participants enjoyed it and were actively engaged in the issues. Having actual drones to touch and feel and drone operators and Officers from Devon & Cornwall Police (trailing drone us) to talk to provided great stimulus for the discussions.
While I’m glad the public did enjoy the day, a common thought I have when reading Sciencewise evaluation reports and seeing similar comments is ‘so what?’. A lot of hard work and time goes in to preparing these events and they need to produce helpful insights that can feed in to policy as solid research in order to benefit society at large.
The dialogue is still ongoing and I’ve only witnessed a small part of the work that is also underway in Aberystwyth, Manchester, Newry and Stirling but the feedback I heard from the expert stakeholders was encouraging. There was the usual “it’s very interesting”, “they [the public] seem to be enjoying it” but there was also comments like “We didn’t expect them to say that”, “We hadn’t considered that angle before”, “that’s something we can take away”. This is great. These insights will be taken away and reported, and hopefully used by policy makers - directly involving the public participants in the policy-making process. That’s what it is all about. This is good from a democratic point of view but it also helps to build more robust policy decisions that will better stand up to public scrutiny.
After the event I visited the Magna Carta exhibition in Salisbury Cathedral and couldn’t help thinking that work like the drones dialogue is another important democratic function, helping to avoid a simply top-down approach to policy-making. I look forward to seeing what impact the five sets of workshops will have on government policy.