Published on May 17, 2013

Aid and the Public: Learning from Open Policy Making in Science

By Simon Burall

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

Johnny Grim

This post summarises a new paper by Involve. The paper compares public engagement in policy involving science and technology to public engagement in aid policy. The paper concludes that DFID could significantly increase public support if it engaged British citizens differently. Further posts will explore how DFID might go about engaging citizens differently and the linkage between public engagement and aid effectiveness.

While the debate about the engagement of UK citizens in international aid policy is not new, the last few years have witnessed a growing interest in the area.

This approach is coming under increasing criticism; see for example the recent Overseas Development Institute report. Critics argue that meaningful public engagement strategies in the international aid policy are either non-existent or superficial. The government has placed its emphasis on the ‘Results Agenda’ in order to ensure value for money.

The Results Agenda requires DFID to report against a series of outcome indicators, such as ‘the number of people with access to financial services as a result of DFID support’. The focus on positive stories and aggregated numbers obscures the practical complexities and ethical trade-offs at the heart of development. It risks creating an imbalance between indicators designed around communicable sound-bites rather than useful, contextualised data for better development. This risks undermining effective programme delivery. It narrows the stage on which the development debate can take place and therefore reduces the scope for public debate and deliberation about the choices that DFID is making.

Despite the long-standing and well-known tradition of support for aid among the British public, it can be characterised as ‘broad but shallow.’ Recent reports show a real demand for a different form of engagement. More meaningful engagement with the UK tax-paying public should be a priority for the following reasons:

  • Greater public engagement in international aid will allow policy makers to better reflect the values and principles of the British public, leading to more stable and sustainable aid commitments that are less vulnerable to crises;
  • Improved public engagement in international aid will allow the policy makers to develop more focussed and less costly accountability processes; and
  • Public engagement in international aid will enhance democratic control and ensure decisions more meaningfully reflect the public’s perspective in the UK’s aid spending.

Better public engagement implies a degree of collaboration, debate and consensus building between government and its citizens, rather than simply the transmission of information, or collection of feedback. This kind of engagement can, if done well, create a more accountable and transparent policy, better development and a stronger government mandate.

In the field of science and technology it is exactly this kind of approach towards citizen engagement that has become a growing force in recent years. Basing its analysis on the lessons learnt in science and technology, our paper identifies some important and practical insights about how British citizens could be better engaged in the development of aid policy.

Inevitably, there are differences between the two areas of policy making. However, as two taxpayer funded sectors, with similar ethical and practical complexities, which enjoy high levels of support as well as frequent crises of confidence, they share many fundamental characteristics. Most importantly, they share the same stakeholder: the British public.

Through a brief comparison of the two fields, our paper identifies the increasingly effective engagement strategies in public policy development involving science and technology which are lacking in the international aid field.

Controversy in the sciences around, for example, genetically modified crops has spurred the government into investing in wider and deeper public engagement. However, similar controversies within international aid, for example about corruption, have not fundamentally changed the way in which the UK public is engaged with the debates about aid delivery and development.

What does better engagement look like?

The use of hybrid and chimera embryos for research has the potential to lead to new treatments for diseases. However, it raises significant ethical concerns. As the regulatory body responsible, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority was keen to explore how the public ‘balanced the ethics, risks and benefits of mixing human and animal genetic material.’ The overall consultation process included four ways of eliciting public views: an open public meeting, an opinion poll, a formal written consultation and a deliberative dialogue.
The Sciencewise supported dialogue process involved small discussion groups of public participants. Participants in these groups were introduced to the subject area and initial reactions were gathered. The second stage of the dialogue process involved a full-day workshop which brought public participants together again, this time with a diverse set of expert speakers who illustrated the different issues and arguments.
Prior to the consultation process, and specifically the deliberative dialogue, there was significant unease within government about authorising such research. The dialogue enabled the HFEA to better understand public hopes and fears, and to authorise such experiments with appropriate safeguards.

Taking this as its starting point, the paper explores public perceptions and governmental responses to them. It analyses the policies developed in response to such controversies; specifically the Sciencewise programme in public policy involving science and technology, and the ‘results agenda’ in international aid. The paper highlights the direct and indirect outcomes of the two policies, drawing out the implications of the engagement shortfall for the international aid sector and government more generally.

If DFID wants the trust of the British public, the department will need to demonstrate it has trust in the public too. It will need to listen to their concerns and aspirations for the future of international aid and development as it makes its plans for the future.

Both the summary and full versions of this paper are available.

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