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FAQ 5: Can the public contribute meaningfully?

Experience has shown that given the right information, support and time, the public can participate in discussions on complex and/or contentious subjects. Many policy makers and experts have been impressed with the speed at which public participants can pick up complex issues and the interest they show.

Having participated in a public dialogue, public bodies have reported ‘confidence in the commitment and ability of the public to understand complex issues and to engage in dialogue with common sense and a sense of responsibility’. For an overview of how being part of a dialogue impacts on participants, see our research paper (2014), Changing Hats.

Policy makers and experts often comment on the enthusiasm with which public participants approach subjects and the level of engagement they show.

They are also regularly impressed by public participants’ ability to delve into and understand the key issues, taking on board large amounts of information and asking relevant and probing questions of experts.

Experience has shown that public participants are able to make complex trade-offs between the benefits and risks of science and technology developments. For example, a review of public dialogues on GM found that, even on such an apparently controversial topic, the public has nuanced and conditional views and does not accept or reject innovations completely. Read more about GM dialogues here.

Ensuring that the public can contribute meaningfully requires a carefully designed process and a safe environment, which gives time and space for participants to digest information, ask questions and engage with experts, and talk among themselves.

“This was genuine engagement – the amount of noise in the room, the way people across the whole room would participate, absolutely no holding back. Giving up a whole Saturday – it’s absolutely incredible!” (External stakeholder, on Big Energy Shift dialogue)

“[I want] to say how impressed I continue to be by the way ordinary members of the public can say in a few words what an academic says in a paragraph” (HFEA member, on Hybrid and Chimera Embryos for Research)

“[Its] strength came from the depth of the discussion – it seemed to open up the deep and personal views of attendees who had, through exposure to the issues, begun to explore what the issues meant to them.” (Stakeholder, on Living With Environmental Change dialogue)

"Discussions of controversial issues can succeed if diverse publics are allowed to contribute the expertise they have gained through their life experiences on an equal footing with experts." (Project manager, on Community X-change)

“The majority of participants decided how acceptable they found ACHM [animals containing human material] research by ‘trading off’ their views of the purpose of the research against concerns over the process it involves.” (Case study, Animals Containing Human Material dialogue)

"This engagement has shown that, given adequate resources and access to expertise, publics can not only take on difficult issues, but work with them in ways which provide meaningful contributions to governance." (Environment Agency, on Nanodialogues)