By Anna Perman, Sciencewise Flexible Tools Manager
From the moment attendees arrived at the Science Museum event, ‘Drones: What’s next?’, cartoonists were asking them about their opinions, and creating drawings to represent what they heard. Rather than sitting, passively listening to talks, they were asked by facilitators, ‘what do you think of the drone demonstration?’, ‘What are your concerns?’ Representatives from the Department for Transport were sitting on tables with them, hearing the conversations and asking and answering questions.
It was a shock for participants. They were expecting a more typical science event, where they listen to experts. They weren’t expecting the experts to listen to them.
The event was happening because of a partnership between Sciencewise, the Science Museum and the Department for Transport. Sciencewise knows that every member of the public can play a role in science policy in a range of ways and our research has shown that the best dialogues use a mix of methods to get input from a range of people.
Because of this, Sciencewise have spent 2015-16 looking into ways of getting public input which can be used alongside or as a precursor to deliberative dialogue, or other methods for seeking public views. ‘Drones: What Next?’ was a pilot event to understand whether one-off, public workshops could be a way of delivering useful information to policymakers, while also raising awareness of key issues, and the visibility of the department’s involvement.
The key differences between this type of event and a full-scale deliberative dialogue were: that the participants in this case were reached by open invitation rather than recruited to be a ‘representative sample’ and paid for their time; and this was a shorter, one-off interaction, as opposed to the usually two or more events in a deliberative dialogue. There were some similarities in the intention and structure of the event, with the Science Museum event including technical specialists and policy makers from the Department for Transport attending to provide information and listen to the debate; and breaking into small discussion groups which debated the issues around drones and fed back to their facilitator who recorded their views.
The independent evaluators found that most of the participants thought this sort of event was a good way to get public input to government policy, and quite a few thought it would inform that policy. The evaluators also found that the main value of the event for policymakers was to interact with ‘grassroots users’ – a middle ground of participants between traditional stakeholders or specially recruited public participants with no specific interest or previous knowledge of the topic.
So we’re excited to be able to add this type of public event to the suite of techniques available to policymakers for input from the public. All techniques improve with use, and we hope that future iterations of events like this will improve practice.