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9 March 2016

We trained 560 policymakers about dialogue; but what did we learn?

— Posted by @ 8:30am

By Reema Patel, Sciencewise Policy Analyst

It’s been just over a year since Sciencewise began working to embed its capacity building and training programme for policymakers across the Civil Service. Since then, we’ve expanded our offer – delivering extended sessions and half day sessions on dialogue, as well as developing bespoke materials for specific cross-departmental issues of interest; such as the public’s voice on data. We’ve also adapted the way that people can participate – running ad hoc events, webinars and workshops where we felt they had potential for a wider or better reach.

A year on, it feels like a good time to take stock of the Sciencewise capacity building programme to reflect on its achievements and most importantly to crystallise some of the wider lessons we learned from it.

What have we achieved?

To date, the Sciencewise capacity building programme has reached 565 policy professionals through 35 training sessions, events, webinars and workshops across government and non-departmental public bodies (including NHS England, the Environment Agency, the Food Standards Agency, and all seven Research Councils). It’s also been great to get some external recognition for the Sciencewise capacity building programme from the European Commission’s Engage2020 programme, which recently recommended Sciencewise training on the added value of public engagement.

A recent internal evaluation of the programme found that satisfaction ratings were positive by the end of 2015; with 80% of participants saying the training was good or excellent; and 28% saying they were excellent. 96% said they would recommend the training to colleagues.

The internal review also suggested that the programme was effective in changing the perspectives of policy makers about the role the public can play in policy making; 80% of respondents to a survey the evaluation undertook said that, as a result of the training, they were more likely to recommend public dialogue to colleagues and 47% said they were more likely to commission public dialogue themselves.

What did we learn from our conversations?

Having conversations with 565 policymakers gave us insight into how best to create deliberative spaces where policymakers trust in the process and have confidence that dialogue will add value to their decision-making.

It gave us a wealth of insight into the challenge of cultural and organisational challenges government departments face as they try to change. For example, we heard from policymakers about institutional incentives which make engagement and dialogue more difficult. Our discussions prompted candid and thought-provoking conversations across a very wide range of policy areas about the constraints of dialogue; and how those could be addressed; so one of the tools we’re developing to address cost and time constraints that are often raised is the Sciencewise Sounding Board – an online deliberative tool to support engagement.

We also heard directly from policymakers about areas where they felt good, early and upstream instances of dialogue could have the potential to improve policy in their subject areas.

And in more extended sessions, we worked through live, thorny, complex issues with policymakers using a deliberative approach – building their capacity and confidence to try out dialogue, as well as their knowledge that they could access 12 years of independent institutional memory and expertise through Sciencewise.

The diagram below goes to the core of what dialogue is about. It is much easier to understand and work with oppositional positions starting from understanding the interest and needs that drive different positions (bottom-up); than it is to start directly from those different positions at the top and try to build a bridge between them.








The Iceberg diagram.

The diagram challenges policymakers to use dialogue to dig deeper to better understand where common ground might be; and what’s driving different interests and positions.

There was some bad news we needed to deliver. Capacity building is also hard work, which takes investment, experience, and time if you want to do it well. And capacity building, valuable and important as it has been shown to be, is only one part of the open policy making infrastructure needed to promote better dialogue and better policy.

Yet as a final reflection; we recognised that no two policymakers have the same challenges – context is king; and dialogue isn’t always the solution. Yet dialogue really does add value in cases where different values are at the heart of the matter; the sort of policy issues Sciencewise works on (from mitochondria therapy, to understanding public attitudes towards drones).


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