By Reema Patel, Sciencewise Policy Analyst
Sciencewise recently delivered an online deliberative discussion in partnership with the Committee on Climate Change, an independent statutory body which advises the government on reducing the UK’s emissions. We engaged 17 participants in dialogue and discussion through the Sounding Board, Sciencewise’s tool for online deliberative engagement. This was our second pilot of the Sounding Board; having run our first pilot with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Education successfully as a proof of concept, we were keen to build on lessons learned to test and develop the model further.
The Sciencewise Sounding Board project asked participants about their views on the barriers to take-up of low carbon heat technologies, such as connecting to a heat network or installing a heat pump in their own home, and then to consider what may address those barriers over the course of two webinar style sessions. The purpose of the project was to provide early, upstream public input to the Committee on Climate Change’s work in developing policy advice on low carbon technologies to the Government.
The approach taken
During the sessions a Committee on Climate Change policy analyst was on hand to present directly to two small groups of participants (of around eight to nine each) about the benefits, disadvantages and comparative judgements that could be made between forms of heating such as gas and electric, and these low carbon technologies.
There was also extensive opportunity to explore the UK’s 2050 emissions reduction objective and its implications for the UK’s reliance on the gas grid to heat homes. Participants were able to direct questions towards the Committee on Climate Change, who provided answers to those questions. We also used deliberative polling techniques; benchmarking attitudes at the start of the session through the use of a quick poll, and then re-polling participants after the session.
The use of scenarios and visualisation
During this session, we developed two scenarios, asking participants to imagine themselves moving to a low carbon heating zone, as well as to imagine themselves considering installing existing heating technology. This added richness to the deliberation, with some very practical suggestions emerging from the conversations held.
Mixed method approach through polling
As well as facilitating deliberative conversations, the Sounding Board tool enabled polling of views and then discussion of responses after polling. The polling approach strengthened the evidence base for findings and conclusions through providing information about participants' views and also enhanced the quality of deliberative discussion. Participants were invited to explain why they had answered in the way they did and to describe any concerns or trade-offs they may have had. It also created the space for exploring the rationale for why people answered the polling questions in the way they did; clarifying misconceptions through communication along the way – a strength of deliberative processes.
Connecting the local to the global
Conversations about climate change, especially deliberative conversations about climate change, present some unique challenges for all those involved. One challenge relates to communicating effectively the relationship between localised or specific behaviour changes that may need to take place to challenges that often have international or global significance and may feel remote to members of the public (for instance, the UK’s targets for reducing emissions). John Dryzek, for example, has written extensively about the contribution that deliberative democracy can make in engaging the public on climate change.
Being able to connect people’s heating choices to the overall UK and global emission targets, whilst simultaneously having these kinds of conversations across different parts of the UK, where the impact of climate change could potentially be very different provided some especially useful insights.
Many participants said that they enjoyed participating – with some specifically expressing an interest in the work the Committee on Climate Change does, and wishing to sign up to the organisation’s newsletter. There is a very personal, transformative effect that engagement processes can have on participants, policymakers and indeed – the facilitators of the process, through the building of trust, mutual understanding and through catalysing a personal and closer connection to the policy issue being discussed. It was good to observe that deliberation online did not present a barrier to this experience for many people.
Work continues on the project – with participants being informed and updated about the outcome and outputs from the events (including a written report), and with opportunities for both policy makers and participants to feed into an overarching evaluation of the sessions. We look forward to publishing the findings in due course.
This was the second pilot of the Sounding Board model.
We will publish our evaluations of use of the Sounding Board. These will inform further recommendations about when, and in what context the use of the tool would be most appropriate and effective. The Sounding Board will also be in Sciencewise guidance about the use of a range of tools for policymakers to find out about and understand public views and values. We aim to publish this guidance by the end of March 2016.