News and Comment

Extending the boundaries of public participation in policy making: the role of video

Monday 17 June 2013

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Over the last decade there has been a concerted effort across government to involve the public more meaningfully in policy development. This can especially be seen in areas such as science and technology, where there has been a clear break with the idea that these sorts of topics are too complex for public involvement and should left to the experts.

A good example of this is the launch of BIS-funded Sciencewise initiative, which has been tasked with developing deliberative practice around challenging topics that often involve steep learning curves and the need to grapple with thorny issues and dilemmas. They’ve rightly placed a great emphasis on the standards of dialogue pushing for methods and processes which are constructive, inclusive and open.

Recognising that there are diverse publics, Sciencewise projects are typically multi-strand and multi-channel. As we found when working with Sciencewise on the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority’s (HFEA) recent consultation on mitochondria replacement techniques, the challenge is to try and harness a combination of approaches that are accessible for different audiences and which truly add value to the quality of learning and discussion.

As well as ensuring accessibility, it is also the responsibility of those designing a deliberative project to make sure that the process is as ‘engaging’ as possible. The public cannot be expected to read reams and reams on an esoteric subject before offering their opinion, but they can be expected (and encouraged) to watch a stimulus video.

In our work supporting deliberative engagement and consultations short stimulus videos have become an essential item in our toolkit. Recently, as part of the HFEA consultation on mitochondria replacement techniques, we used a combination of vox pop videos and animation to support the dialogue, noting the following benefits in doing so:

  • Videos provide a clear route into complex debates. They are ideal tools for introducing some of the key concepts and issues before participants embark on more sophisticated discussions about the associated social and ethical issues
  • So long as they are short, accessible and engaging – videos can used as a briefing aids across each strand of a consultation and among a range of audiences, including: members of the public attending workshops; experts attending open public meetings; and visitors to the consultation website.
  • Videos can also act as an artifact from past public consultations, bringing to engagement a legacy and longevity which many other methods do not. In this manner they can be used to share best practice as well as provide a record of the engagement approach undertaken in the interests of transparency and posterity.

Three films produced for the HFEA consultation on mitochondria replacement techniques by Close-Up research

Practitioners not used to using videos in their engagement work can often be put off by what they perceive to be the complexity, cost and unfamiliarity of the method. Such fears however, are unfounded. The cost of talking and head and paper animation videos can be far from prohibitive, and the principles underpinning the use of video as an engagement tool should be the same as those that underpin all successful engagement activities: a combination of thorough scoping, design and editing as well as the ability to bring the issue at hand to life creatively.

When used properly videos can help to convey complex information both clearly and concisely and therefore further the democratic purpose of deliberative engagement – to increase the public’s participation in debates that hitherto have been decided solely by politicians and experts acting on our behalf. For those of us passionate about engagement who believe that policy benefits from greater public involvement in decision–making, this is a decidedly good thing. After all, it is only possible to have meaningful engagement with the public that informs policy properly, if the public are properly informed.