Published on August 12, 2010

The Homeopathic Theory of Public Engagement

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is the Director of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

Run well, public engagement processes can be transformative for those taking part. I saw this again last summer in Kettering where Involve ran the UK leg of a global dialogue on climate change. Funded by the irreplaceable Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust we brought together 100 people recruited to represent the demographics of the town. Our recruitment criteria explicitly excluded people with a professional connection to the climate change debate or green groups.

Many of the people who turned up seemed nervous and some explicitly questioned what value they could add to the day. It was noticeable that during the day the coffee breaks got fewer and shorter as the energy in the room increased. By the end of the day the participants were buzzing with enthusiasm and connection to the issues, many carrying on the conversation between themselves as they left and some talking about how they hoped to use what they had learnt. However, they dispersed back into their communities and I wonder if they were able to maintain that level of enthusiasm and energy as daily life took over?

No matter how complex the issues, whether they are about civil nuclear power, the impact of nanotechnology or the regulation of hybrid animal-human cells, this transformation is something we see time and again when citizens are brought together and given the space to deliberate about critical issues facing society.

And processes like these can be really valuable. For example, we evaluated a series of dialogues about nanotechnology. Scientists who took part talked about how the perspectives of the public participants had changed the course of their research. Engagement processes similar to these that are deeply connected to the policy process, such as recent ones co-funded by Sciencewise on geoengineering and synthetic biology, for example, will help guide research investment decisions by Research Councils. This research will, in turn, impact on downstream research applications directly affecting future consumers and citizens.

However, as we highlight in our recent pamphlet Talking for a Change, there is a class of issues, including climate change and the impact of changing demographics, which require a very different form of public engagement. Both are issues which are incredibly complex. They require evidence from drastically different disciplines including climate science, biodiversity, economics, politics and communications. They are issues that are inter-temporal in nature; decisions taken now will only impact decades into the future. They impact on, and require action at, the local, national and global levels. Above all this class of issue requires citizens to take action, possibly through radical change in behaviour, and it requires them to consent to significant changes to government policy, whether in terms of the tax base or investments in one form of transport over another.

In other words we need to scale up the impact of the engagement. The Democratic Society has recently posted a blog on this very topic, raising similar questions in relation to the debate about immigration. It is a live issue for many areas of public policy.

We know that homeopathy doesn’t work; the notion of a totally dilute solution prompting the body to cure cancer lacks any known mechanism for action.

The same is true for public engagement. So we really must find ways of scaling up engagement beyond bringing 100 randomly selected people into the room, energising and enthusing them before sending them changed back into society. We have no theory for how this will change the terms of the political debate and cause the mass behaviour change that is needed. The problem is not with our diluted citizens, it is with our theory of how public engagement will change society.

Image by widdowquinn

3 Responses to “The Homeopathic Theory of Public Engagement”

  1. Alan Hudson
    August 13, 2010 at 10:45 am

    Interesting. Are you saying – as you last sentence suggests – that adding a different theory to the existing reality will make the difference? If so, I think that can be right, as theories can inform beliefs which can inform actions. Would be good to make the case as to why/how a theory can make a difference a bit more clearly. Or have I missed the point?!

    • August 31, 2010 at 10:47 am

      Yes, I do mean precisely that; a new theory about how public engagement can help deal with complex problems is needed.

      I didn’t get that far in my short blog, although our latest publication (in shameless cross publicity) heads towards answering your question. Or at least it tries to identify principles why which you might do public engagement differently in order to impact positively on policy and public debate.

      http://www.involve.org.uk//talking-for-a-change/

  2. Karen Williams
    September 2, 2010 at 10:48 am

    Your comments about homeopathy shows that your attempts to get people involved in your communtiy will only have very limited success. This is because you limit your views to proven methodology and not open minded enough about possibilities

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