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4 March 2015

Who wants civil society engagement? The story so far of involving Civil Society Organisations in Sciencewise

Filed under: — Posted by Nanasha @ 12:09pm

By Amy Pollard, Dialogue Manager, Sciencewise

Mixed professionals_croppedSciencewise 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?


Posted by Amy Pollard, 22/04/2015 11:49am (3 years ago)

(Comment from Simon Fenton-Jones, original posted at on LinkedIn Open Policy Making Group thread)

Hi Amy,

Firstly let me say I think you, Simon and the Involved team are doing a great job. It's such a tricky one when we still have this inside/outside (of how governance works) view of things. e.g. "I’d be interested in perspectives from both sides of the spectrum: from those in civil society organisations and those in government". Same citizen. Two hats.

The one thing which always rings a large bell for me is " We were deliberately asking for GROUPS to consider working on topics that are outside their mandates". That's the biggest hurdle in a world where one government/department/committee will be working in a term of reference that, inevitably, will have ramifications on another.

I keep looking at this list and wondering if the GOV.UK designers have ever taken an individual's perspective. "Blizzard" is the word.

To your conclusion ".. perhaps the NAP commitment is rather skewed by a government perspective", I can only reply "understatement". But so are all the other .gov.xx projects. Lisa and the OPM team are no different than any other. They, like every other GROUP in their position, believes that they should be inventing "the/a" toolkit. But at least they are being open about it. Thanks Lisa!

Collaboration. It's so often said, yet so few groups, in their projects, will do it. I look at Involve, NHScitizen, the GDS and GCS groups, DCLG Local Digital Campaign, ad infinitum - all attempting to motivate the same citizen to participate (around an issue. from some url. if anyone knew of it.) - separated by the basic inside/outside, local/national/global perspectives of the same issue. Each working on their own toolkit, inside their own network.

Should see how it looks from an EC perspective.
We can see the OGP view.

So bring it down.
We know, as a (UK) citizen, employed by a government, we must consider ourselves beholden to a department. e.g.

We also know that, when running a consultation, we want people to find a grouping of inside/outside groups that address an issue. e.g.

But the two can never come together until a citizen can find the topical grouping who address an issue.

Many are already there on GOV.UK.
Many, like this OPM group, are not.

But at least we know we are going to continue to run around like headless chooks until we reform the GOV.UK publication to reflect the real of world of collaborating, civil citizens.

Posted by Amy Pollard, 22/04/2015 11:49am (3 years ago)

(Comment from Jane Whewell, Deputy Director at Better Regulation Executive, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, originally posted on LinkedIn Open Policy Making Group)

Hi Amy

A few thoughts from here - which may or may not help! - and we too have had things we have tried and some worked, and some .... My first thought would be to broaden the range of channels you are using to engage. We (Focus on Enforcement) have also sought to engage civil society organisations as well as companies, charities, trade associations, regulators and individuals etc in our work. We have used a mix of crowd sourcing (worked very well with civil society) one on one meetings (went OK with CS) requesting written submissions (CS sent us a few responses). Different groups are, well, different - so we have learned you need to allow for that. One sector we dealt with point blank refused to use a web-site and wouldn't say very much at big meetings. They had no problem sending us written papers and in one on one meetings. On fire safety issues, the web-site was red hot. My other thought is that you cannot over-emphasise the need to explain why they ought to want to engage. Research organisations first - what worries them? how can what you want to talk about help meet their goals and how can you help them understand this? Can you legitimately offer anything else they might want eg. access to Ministers to discuss issues that matter, research you have they might want ? contacts they want to speak to etc.etc. Hope this helps - and good luck!

Posted by Amy Pollard, 22/04/2015 11:49am (3 years ago)

Edited comment received via email from a policy advisor from a govt department:

"I think most people – both customer and client - want civil society engagement but, in this time of austerity, need clearer understanding and proof of the benefit and their impact on outcome; expressed through cost effectiveness of engagement. Is it worth their time?

- Need to think about the Return on Investment from both sides. Consider 'the sell' - what would be the benefit and impact of involvement?

Posted by David Wilcox, 22/04/2015 11:49am (3 years ago)

Hi Amy - I'm not sure I have much to contribute, without knowing a bit more about the way engagement works at present, but did want to say thanks for being open about the failure!
In terms of engagement, have you tried asking those who are involved for a some personal contacts with others they think would be interested outside the usual circles? Ideally do a bit of network mapping so see where some key connections may be.
On content and process, are the issues framed in ways that will engage wider participants? I recently led a process on Ageing Better with tech that went from provocations to challenges and ideas, and led to reframing the issue as Living Well in the Digital Age That's proving to be a much more engaging framework.
Generally my hunch is network building, stories, conversations and reframing the issues. More an exploration that an engagement proposition.

Posted by Anthony Zacharzewski, 22/04/2015 11:49am (3 years ago)

Speaking as someone who runs a busy civil society organisation, I think the hardest thing is engaging people outside their immediate area of focus. I know I filter emails very strongly on the basis of whether it's about my mission.

I think (as someone who was involved in trying to describe what the event could be) we didn't make clear what benefit participants could have got out of it. Perhaps there was no benefit - but that itself would be a lesson.

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