The Engage2020 Action Catalogue is an online tool designed help researchers, policy-makers and others wanting to engage with the public on technical or scientific issues to find the method best suited to their needs.
In Science, Society and Engagement (an e-Anthology published as part of the Engage2020 project) one of the conclusions the authors draw is that, in the field of public engagement new methods are not the priority.
‘There are functioning methods for creating a myriad of outcomes and while these do need development there is not a pressing need for completely new methods… The challenge ahead is less about developing new methods and more about applying the ones we have more effectively. This does require innovation, but at the institutional rather than the methodological level.’ (p 78)
This conclusion seems to be backed up by the Action Catalogue itself which includes 57 different methods for engaging with the public, selected because they have been successfully used to address complex or technical subjects. From Citizens Science through Hackathons to Future Search Conferences each method is described in detail, along with the specific strengths and weaknesses of the approach, and case studies provide examples of how it has been used in the past. There is a wealth of information and, dipping in, you can easily find yourself browsing the catalogue for hours, exploring the nuanced differences between a Citizens Hearing, Citizens Jury and the Citizens Compass.
But any method is only as good as the use it is put to…
The catalogue encourages users to refine their search for a method by their objective and purpose in involving the public.
(In fact there are 32 different filtering criteria you can use – from geographic scope, through practical considerations like cost, time and numbers needing to be involved, to the skills required to deliver – to narrow down appropriate options.) That said, it is unlikely that working through the process will ever result in a definitive answer on what method to use, and nor is it designed to. Instead it is a tool intended to suggest a range of proven methods that are relevant to addressing the need or problem at hand.
This brings me back to the challenge identified at the beginning. Effective public engagement is not necessarily about method. Instead the key to a successful engagement process is having a clear understanding of just what it is you want the public to add to the existing situation. Only once there is a defined purpose in place, alongside an agreed understanding of the scope of influence and intended outcomes of the engagement, can decisions about methods really begin to be made. Although even then, because every question is different and the social, institutional and decision making context in which it is being asked is unique, an ‘off-the-shelf’ solution is rarely the best way forward. In practice most situations call for a hybrid approach, one that draws from the menu of options in creative ways at different stages and for different effects, and it is here that we have scope to innovate.