News and Comment

Engaging the public

Monday 3 December 2012

“It’s a disease. Nobody thinks or feels or cares any more; nobody gets excited or believes in anything….”

Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road

The quote above – written by the great American writer Richard Yates – is not an empirical assessment of the state of people in Britain today, but rather a sardonic comment from a novel set in 1950s America made by its unhappy protagonist, Frank Wheeler. But given the undercurrent in the media about people’s growing apathy, and considering the recent dire election turnouts, it is sometimes tempting to agree with those like Frank Wheeler who believe that the public just don’t care enough about the issues that affect their lives.

However contrary to such perceptions, I am encouraged to see that there is plenty of evidence that people do care about politics, society, social issues, and public services. Even in cases where the issue or social problem has little to do with their own lives, people are keen to learn more and offer their views about what can be done to move things forward.

My colleague and friend Kai Rudat – who tragically passed away last month – pioneered our stakeholder engagement practice at OPM. An expert in deliberative engagement, social surveys, and on-line engagement, Kai was irrevocably committed to the belief that people are interested and willing to be engaged, and that it is the duty of public services to do everything in their power to place people at the heart of decision making.

Now, when I am asked to consult the public on an issue – whether on the future of water supply, health care reforms, or social cohesion – I constantly seek to remind myself of what Kai believed.

Recently, I have been involved in programme of public engagement for the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority on Techniques for the Avoidance of Mitochondrial Disease. Initially I had my concerns about whether people would be interested in contributing to this consultation. Techniques for the Avoidance of Mitochondrial disease – whilst having the capacity to save people’s lives – are not immediately obvious or easy to explain; instead they are the product of cutting edge innovation, obscured by complex arguments around ethics and scientific progress.

However, not only were people interested in engaging with this topic, they turned up in huge numbers on Saturdays and summer evenings to discuss, at length, the science, ethics pros and cons of such techniques. Over two weekends, in three different parts of the UK, more than 150 people turned up to debate this issue and over 1000 people have also responded to the online consultation.

Of course such interest isn’t generated by pure luck; there are good practices that can encourage people from all backgrounds to not only turn up, but to meaningfully and practically engage in discussions. Here are just a few such steps:

  1. Use interesting and innovative visuals and stimulus materials to explain issues and build understanding, such as animation, photos, maps and ethnographic videos.
  2. Encourage everyone to have a say, through firm and skilled facilitation and by designing events carefully so that people feel comfortable enough to speak up
  3. Use case studies and stories that describe the impact of policies on peoples lives, so that they can more easily make a connection with what is being discussed
  4. Provide expert witnesses who can attend events and give their perspectives on new policies or social issues.
  5. Use a variety of methods to engage, ranging from online techniques and social media, through to outreach and peer-research (where you train people to conduct the research on your behalf)
  6. Present feedback and findings clearly using visuals, diagrams and most importantly, plain English.

Whilst Frank Wheeler may only be the product of a novelist’s imagination, there are always real people out there who question the capacity of the public to engage with complex issues that have little relevance to their daily lives. Thankfully though, as we’ve seen, they remain a minority.