By Amy Pollard, Dialogue Manager, Sciencewise
Sciencewise made a commitment as part of the Open Government Partnership’s National Action Plan 2013-2015, to work more closely with civil society organisations. The wording of the commitment was:
Sciencewise will bring together civil society organisations to better understand how to involve them in public dialogue on science and technology policy. The programme will identify groups that come from different areas of the UK and certain sectors which will enable the programme to have as wide a reach as possible.
In the course of supporting public dialogues for government, Sciencewise often works with civil society organisations who have interests in the policy interests at stake. These organisations play a part in providing evidence and information for public participants; take up places on the oversight groups of projects; and often have an interest in the outcomes of dialogues. But we were interested in whether there could be a wider role for civil society than that. What kind of role might there be for civil society organisations who don’t have a particular interest in science/technology related policy issues? What value might those who aren’t stakeholders on the policy debate bring?
We decided to organise a breakfast meeting to explore these questions. We did our level best to stretch out to a wide network as possible, inviting more than 20 contacts in different organisations at a range of levels. We invited regional umbrella organisations; large high street charities; umbrella groups; groups who have had contact with Sciencewise; organisations with a local level focus; groups with some science in their mandate and groups with a participation twist.
Let’s say things as they are; we got it wrong here. A handful of people got back to us positively, but the overwhelming response was that there wasn’t enough of interest in this meeting for people to spare the time to attend. Not even with the promise of food!
We decided to cancel the meeting and try to understand what had gone wrong. We tried to arrange phone calls with those who had replied positively to see what insights they might have (only one phone call arranged successfully – queue violins!).
Stepping back, this is my analysis:
• Civil society organisations are busy. They are focused on achieving their goals and dealing with stuff that lies firmly within their mandates.
• We were deliberately asking for groups to consider working on topics that are outside their mandates. Whilst there might be a general case for saying it’s ‘a good thing’ for wider civil society to be involved, from the perspective of an individual agency the question is ‘why me?’.
• If we want wider civil society organisations to be involved, we need a firmer sense of why this would be useful and what value they would bring. This needs to make sense from an individual agency perspective, not just at a higher level.
As so often with participation work, it comes back to a question of purpose. The National Action Plan commitment talks about broadening the involvement of civil society groups so that Sciencewise can have as wider a reach as possible, but what purpose would this serve for the groups themselves? On reflection, despite being about opening up government and improving the relationship with civil society, perhaps the NAP commitment is rather skewed by a government perspective.
One way to reframe the purpose might be to put civil society organisations in a more agenda setting role – not just responding to the dialogues proposed by government but putting forward their own propositions for issues that need to be explored with the public. There are lots of civil society organisations whose work involves complex and controversial policy issues, and bringing the public voice to bear would be seen as a useful advocacy approach by many. There’s certainly a greater confluence of interests there – civil society groups would get a high quality process with the public and policy makers reflecting on an issue they care about; and government would get the multiplying power of civil society organisations to make the dialogues more widely known and impactful. Should civil society have a rolling opportunity to propose dialogue topics to Sciencewise?
I’d be interested in perspectives from both sides of the spectrum: from those in civil society organisations and those in government.
Would this be a more fruitful basis for civil society engagement in Sciencewise? Or do we want something else? Or do we not really want civil society engagement in Sciencewise after all?