This is the second in a series of posts following the launch of an Involve research paper, comparing public engagement in policy involving science and technology to public engagement in aid policy.

The first post summarised the paper. This post proposes some different ways that DFID could engage the public in deliberation about aid policy. My final post will suggest a highly public and visible way in which DFID could involve the public. In a companion post, Brendan Whitty explores the linkage between public engagement and aid effectiveness.

Our newly launched research paper concludes that DFID should identify ways in which it can engage British citizens in more debate about aid spending and priorities for a number of 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 UK’s aid spending.

The challenge for policy makers who have limited experience of opening up policy making to the public is that it can be difficult to picture how it might work. I thought it might be helpful to take our somewhat theoretical paper and give some high-level indications of what opening up to the public might look like in practice.

Sciencewise offers a good number of strong examples of different ways that this could be done, and there are lots of other examples from across the UK and globally. There are many ways in which DFID could engage the public at different levels of policy.

The examples below range in size and impact. It is worth noting that they can’t replace stakeholder engagement and other forms of evidence gathering that DFID would naturally do anyway. However, done well such processes will provide significant insights into the views and perspectives of the public in relation to specific policy decisions.

Engaging the public in the development of a new country programme

DFID regularly reviews its country programmes, closing some, opening others or identifying new sectors to fund within existing programmes. Each decision is based on a series of trade-offs about the effectiveness of that programme, its effectiveness in relation to other programmes and the relative poverty of the country’s population, for example.

Sciencewise public dialogues offer one model which DFID might consider adopting in such cases. These dialogues typically (though not always) bring together a broadly representative sample of 100-200 members of the public over the course of two or more day long sessions. Through interactions with experts, peer deliberation and engagement with policy questions, participants can provide policy makers with valuable insights which help to improve the effectiveness of policies.

My first post in this series gave the example of the HFEA which, through public engagement, felt able to approve experiments which it had thought the public were against. The public dialogue helped the Authority to understand that the public viewed such experiments as potentially useful as long as appropriate safeguards were put in place. In other words, it helped the HFEA to react to a true rather than imagined perspective of public attitudes.

Citizens and DFID’s strategy

The Biology and Biological Research Council has recently run a public dialogue to open up the development of their strategy on basic bioscience underpinning health. One of the things the public were asked to do was to help BBSRC identify potential grand challenges and an indication of what success under these challenges might look like.

There is no reason why DFID couldn’t involve the public in a similar way as it develops its own strategy. Opening up strategy in this way would allow the department to involve the public in the framing of the overarching questions and issues it faces. I suspect it would be pleasantly surprised by what they heard.

Involving citizens at the highest level

Sciencewise has a Steering Group of key senior stakeholders inside and outside government to provide advice to the programme and the responsible department, BIS. Sitting alongside this is a Citizen Group drawn from members of the public who have attended a Sciencewise dialogue in the past. This group discusses the same agenda items as the Steering Group and two members join the Steering Group as full members. Other more controversial areas of government policy have developed similar structures. For example, NICE has a Citizens Council which provides NICE with a public perspective on overarching moral and ethical issues to take into account when it produces guidance for health, public health and social care practitioners.

DFID could develop a Citizen Group to sit alongside the Departmental Board, for example, to feed into its discussions. This would be a practical and visible way for DFID to demonstrate that it believes citizens’ views matter.

In the next post, I explore a much higher profile way in which DFID could open up to a much wider debate about aid, development and the spending of public money.

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

The full report: Resetting the Aid Relationship (PDF document)

The summary: Resetting the Aid Relationship Summary (PDF document)

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