Back in March this year, we attended a  Sciencewise (the UK’s national centre for public dialogue in policy making involving science and technology issues) workshop. The session was for research practioners and covered its new framework for assessing the quality of public dialogue in public policy making. The debate was driven partly by the findings from evaluations of public dialogue projects supported by Sciencewise. These have identified specific questions about the rigour and quality of dialogue processes, and the implications of those questions for the extent to which dialogue results can be used with confidence to inform public policy decisions.

Following extensive consultation, Sciencewise has recently published its framework which provides a set of questions on public dialogue practice, designed to stimulate thinking and open up design options. It is intended to act as a practical check list for policy makers, research practitioners and evaluators; as well as a contribution to the wider thinking about public dialogue.

The framework draws extensively on existing guidance, particularly from HM Treasury’s Quality in Qualitative Evaluation framework and the Sciencewise Guiding Principles. It follows the same structure of the Guiding Principles in covering context, scope, delivery, impact and evaluation.

The new framework aims to address a number of tricky questions, including:

  • how many is ‘enough’ participants? how many locations are needed to provide adequate ‘coverage’?
  • should the role of scientists and other specialists involved in dialogue events be limited to providing information, or should they be participants in the dialogue?
  • is there a difference between research ‘subjects’ and dialogue ‘participants’?
  • what makes a dialogue ‘deliberative’ and how critical is the amount of time provided to allow participants to absorb, challenge and use the information they are given in relation to time for discussion?
  • to what extent should dialogue processes use polling techniques within workshops, and should reports of a qualitative process such as public dialogue use quantitative measures of scale to demonstrate strength of feeling?
  • what forms of analysis and reporting are appropriate, what role do participants have in reporting dialogue results, and how much can reporting be based on agreements reached collectively with participants?
  • what will count as sufficiently robust processes to enable decision makers to be able to know how and when to use dialogue results with confidence in decision making alongside other forms of evidence?

In our view, there are many challenges in getting public dialogue right and, whilst we have extensive experience in this area, we feel that any additional resources for policy makers and practitioners are very welcome. Click here to download the framework.

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