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Public dialogue and campaigns: Natural bedfellows?

Talking Food Taking Action is the latest example in an increasingly common trend of campaigns and membership organisations running their own public dialogue processes. Run by Our Life, which campaigns for health and wellbeing, the aim is to create a discussion around how to ensure everyone has access to healthier food.

Public Engagement Manager at Our Life, Peter Bryant, explained to Sciencewise-ERC that “far too often, campaign strategies are decided upon with minimal, or a complete absence of, public input. Wherever possible, we want our campaigns to be based upon the issues identified in and prioritised through a deliberative process”.

The approach of Our Life is laudable and, hopefully, other campaigns will follow suit. Not only is dialogue an effective way to identify the topics on which to campaign, but a deliberative process can also create a sense of ownership on the part of the participants, making them more likely to get involved in the campaign.

However, while it’s easy to see how dialogue can help campaigns, it’s also important to ask how campaigns shape such dialogue. An important aspect of the Sciencewise-ERC principles of dialogue is that processes should have no in-built bias. A great deal of care and attention is often put into presenting balanced information and ensuring that, where facilitators are used, they remain neutral. How can organisations with explicit social or political campaign aims achieve such neutrality and how can organisations such as Our Life convince policy makers of the independence and, hence, the credibility of the information arising from the dialogue?