How can public dialogue be improved, in the context of public views on sentencing policy?

Rebooting Online Public Dialogue
RSA, University of Southampton, Nethood, Justice Select Committee
One year

Public dialogue is often used to bring the public’s opinions and values into policymaking, including for important issues like climate action, genome testing, and how we regulate AI. But there are challenges public dialogues often face, particularly online. Dialogue’s methods can create barriers to inclusion and engage a less diverse group of people as a result. There are privacy risks from the online platforms used and deliberation is difficult to scale. 

Involve, the University of Southampton and Nethood collaborated to deliver and test potential solutions for these problems. We tested and evaluated new tools in the live context of a public dialogue exploring the public’s priorities for Sentencing Policy. 

This dialogue was designed to contribute to the Justice Select Committee’s inquiry into public perceptions of sentencing. Rebooting Online Public Dialogue evaluated how each tool helps solve these problems by looking at their impact within a dialogue, how they impact how decision makers respond to the dialogue, and how they support the public having a voice in the important issue of sentencing policy. 

The project is part of the RSA and UKRI’s programme Rethinking Public Dialogue, running from September 2022 - September 2023. The programme funded the testing of new approaches and possibilities for public dialogue. Throughout, Involve and our partners met with the other nine grantees throughout to bring together diverse perspectives and share our learning about developing creative and innovative approaches to dialogue.

Supporting the Justice Select Committee

Decision makers already use public dialogue to inform their work and would usually initiate the process. So it is crucial for any new approach to be seen as credible and usable by decision makers, and for dialogue to take place in a real and useful context.  We were able to combine the experimental format with providing a real public input into some live areas for public engagement required by the Justice Select Committee. 

The public dialogue report (forthcoming) will provide evidence to an inquiry by the House of Commons Justice Select Committee. The inquiry examines public opinion and understanding of sentencing policy in England & Wales. Sentencing policy guides the decisions of judges on individual sentencing choices. Making sense of public opinion about sentencing is challenging. While polling can indicate preferences, it can sometimes reveal contradictions in public views.  Dialogue can bring together different perspectives and explore where differences of opinion occur and where the potential is for common ground.

The dialogue answered two key questions:

  • What do you think the aims of sentencing should be?
  • What should the government’s priorities be when setting sentencing policy?

25 people were chosen to reflect a general public who did not have professional or personal lived experience of the justice system. They were from across England & Wales, and reflective of age, gender, region and urban-rural areas. Participants engaged in three half-day sessions to learn more about the issue, deliberate together and answer the two questions above. They listened to presentations about the aims of sentencing, different perspectives from victims and prisoners, and how sentencing is discussed online. 

What methods did we test and why?

As part of the dialogue we tested four methods with potential benefits to public dialogue: 

  • Argument Mapping: half of the groups used an argument mapping tool. The argument mapping tool concisely sets out in a visual hierarchy the key arguments that were being used, as well as the pros and cons to those arguments. 
  • Social Media Analysis: the whole dialogue discussed the results of an analysis of how sentencing is posted about on social media.The topic modelling analysis, which is based on machine learning, brought in external discussion by showing what articles and topics were being talked about on Twitter. 
  • New Platform: one of the three meetings took place on Jitsi, a platform with higher privacy protection than Zoom. The open source platform was designed for the requirements of the public dialogue.
  • Gamified Scenarios: participants engaged in a role-playing exercise based on the Sentencing Council’s You be The Judge scenarios. This presented the questions in a different style to encourage critical, empathetic and creative thinking. 

What's next?

We have written the findings from the dialogue and survey results from participants into a report for the inquiry. This report was submitted as evidence to the inquiry and is available to view on the Justice Select Committee Website here or further down this page. The Inquiry findings are planned to be published in Autumn 2023

The findings about the experiments will be shared in a wider report by the RSA alongside learnings from the other grantees in Autumn 2023. Involve and our partners will work to share our key findings, and possibilities for future engagement practice and research. 

You can read more about the Rethinking Dialogue Programme on the RSA’s website. Select here for the RSA’s page. 

You can read more about the Justice Select Committee’s Inquiry on the Parliamentary Website. Select here for the Inquiry page