Published on June 4, 2014

Public Futures: Using public dialogue to develop policy options on emerging, cross-cutting issues


By Sonia Bussu

Dr Sonia Bussu is a researcher at Involve. She is passionate about increasing citizen voice in public policy (so much so that she did a PhD on the topic) and over the past few years she has been involved in several research projects on citizen participation in policy-making.

“It is not debate which is a hindrance to action, but rather not to be instructed by debate before the time comes for action.”

(Pericles, 430 B.C. according to historian Thucydides)


“May you live in interesting times”, says an often quoted Chinese curse (although the source has never been found!). And these are indeed interesting and complex times, but they do not need to be cursed. They do require, however, a change of perspective. In a context of uncertain environmental and economic conditions and rapidly developing technology and science, where knowledge is increasingly contested and expert and political elites can’t have all or even many of the answers, could the distinction between experts and non-experts become redundant?

In 430 B.C. Pericles already recognised the value of public debate. As we face new pressing emergencies, which often require radical changes to public behaviour, might there be an even more crucial role for public dialogue and citizen engagement in the future? And how can we involve the public in policymaking for complex, cross- cutting issues? I recently wrote a paper  for Sciencewise which addresses some of these big questions and speculate on possible solutions. Sciencewise is the UK’s national centre for public dialogue in policymaking on science and technology issues and provides co-funding and support to Government departments and agencies that want to develop public dialogue initiatives.

So, as we find ourselves in a precarious state, under many heavy swords of Damocles, from demographic changes to environmental and economic crises, the emphasis necessarily has to shift from addressing acute needs to preventing them. This inherently requires the direct involvement of people in policymaking, as citizens are the co-producers of both problems and solutions. The alternative is to rely on people’s compliance to top-down rules that might lack legitimacy: in a context of assertive citizens and widespread public cynicism and distrust towards all centres of authority that might prove wishful thinking. More importantly, by tapping into the knowledge and resources of citizens, public engagement will be crucial to defining complex problems, as well as developing and implementing legitimate solutions.

By reviewing recent literature this short paper highlights the growing appetite for public involvement in key cross-cutting policy formulation and implementation, showing that the gains would be on many levels: more effective elaboration of innovative solutions, as well as long-term cost reduction. As complex issues inherently cross-cut different departments, governmental stakeholders will be required to work beyond internal silos also when engaging the public. So, public engagement will need the active support of politicians and senior management within relevant departments.

But how can we involve people in deliberating over the most complex issues? In the paper I argue that a distributed dialogue approach (Andersson et al 2010) might be useful on issues that are international, interconnected, intergenerational, distributed across multiple layers of society and life changing, as they require governments and citizens to change their behaviours as well as their vision of the future. Contrary to public engagement as it has been understood so far (one-off events on tightly defined issues), this approach would attempt to scale up the conversation, through connecting bottom-up and top-down voices.

If the initiative comes only from the top, which sets the agenda through the use of predetermined questions for example, then the resulting power imbalance impacts on people’s confidence and expectations. Bottom-up action alone cannot work either because these are collective action problems requiring large-scale investment and new frameworks for changing incentives for individuals, communities and businesses. What we might need then is a central strategic approach combined with devolution of power and autonomy of action (Andersson et al. 2010).

The challenges are many, because this approach requires:

  1. greater cross-sectoral cooperation and working beyond internal silos;
  2. the support of senior management and political figures and direct involvement of policymakers in key positions to facilitate the integration of participatory processes and decisions into the policymaking cycle;
  3. multiple forms of communication and different but connected platforms, on and offline, to allow different groups and interests to come to the fore and have their voice heard;
  4. greater attention to the quality of information and expertise ensuring all participants can access the necessary tools to engage with an equal voice;
  5. appropriate funding throughout;
  6. shifting our understanding of public engagement from one-off projects to a continuous process.

The effort is worth taking: the alternative to an engaged public is not necessarily an unengaged one, but a public that is increasingly hostile against political institutions and more susceptible to populist narratives. The latest European elections are a case in point.

You can read the full paper here. Please send me your comments and thoughts!

Picture credit: The Sword of Damocles by Richard Westall 1812

Leave a Reply