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Public engagement is a term that has recently been used, particularly in the UK, to describe "the involvement of specialists listening to, developing their understanding of, and interacting with, non-specialists" (as defined by England's university funding agency, HEFCE, in 2006).



The tradition of a decision-making body getting inputs from those with less power is generally known as “consultation”. This became popular with UK governments during the 1980s and 1990s[1]. Even though most governments that carry out consultations are democratically elected, many people who became involved in these processes were surprised that conduct of such “consultations” was unsatisfactory in at least three respects.

1) Groups that already had influence were often the only ones consulted 2) People who did not have the resources to find out would usually not be able to be part of a consultation, even if the decision it was meant to influence might have a major impact on them. 3) There were no agreed safeguards against consultations being used cynically by decision-makers to make it look like they had sought to canvass other opinions, while in fact having set a new policy in place even before it asked the question.

As early as 1979, science analyst Dorothy Nelkin pointed out that much of what passed for participation in governance could best be understood as attempts by the powerful to co-opt the public.

Theories of public engagement

Public engagement is a relatively new term, hardly used before the late 1990s. The existing term it shares most in common with is participatory democracy, discussed by thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Stuart Mill and G D H Cole.

Many see participatory democracy as complementing representative democratic systems, in that it puts decision-making powers more directly in the hands of ordinary people. Rousseau suggested that participatory approaches to democracy had the advantage of demonstrating that “no citizen is a master of another” and that, in society, “all of us are equally dependent on our fellow citizens”. Rousseau suggested that participation in decision –making increases feeling among individual citizens that they belong in their community. Perhaps the most long-standing institution of participatory democracy is the system of trial by jury.

Whilst elected governments make the laws, it is therefore juries that are able to decide the innocence or guilt of anyone charged with breaking many of those laws, making it a key instrument of participatory democracy. Over the centuries they have achieved an importance to many democracies that have had to be fiercely defended. One senior judge surveying the limiting of a government’s power provided by the jury over the centuries compared the jury to: “a little parliament… No tyrant could afford to leave a subject’s freedom in the hands of twelve of his countrymen…. Trial by jury is more than an instrument of justice and more than one wheel of the constitution: it is the lamp that shows that freedom lives”. (Patrick Devlin 1956). Today, jury trials are practised in the UK, US, and many other democracies around the world including Russia, Spain, Brazil and Australia. Perhaps no other institution of government rivals the jury in placing power so directly in the hands of citizens, or wagers more on the truth of democracy’s core claim that the people make their own best governors. Juries are therefore be argued to be the most widespread form of genuine consultation at work in society today.

Good practice in public engagement

Taking participatory democracy as an ideal for public engagement has significant consequences for how we apply the concept to issues with a scientific or technical element. Instead of merely receiving inputs from various interested parties, a participatory model of consultation forces decision-makers to recognise the democratic accountability of their actions not merely every few years at elections, but in a more systematic, direct sense to citizens.

A common misconception is that there is a particular methodology that can be devised to facilitate all public engagement. Effective participation, by contrast, is conducted on the assumption that each different situation will require a different design, using a new combination of tools as part of an evolving cycle of action and reflection by the institution involved.

Each "experiment" in participatory democracy contains a unique mix of people and institutions. Each method must therefore select elements from a range of different approaches. Participation is also overtly "political" in that it is about humans, power and knowledge – all of which are inherently complex and which together make for a potent mix that requires sensitivity and careful planning. So while participatory processes can be replicated in the same way as scientific protocols, their human ingredients can differ so much that a concentration on replicating what happened elsewhere often hinders the practical application of a technique.

Before describing a scientific experiment, scientists know that it is vital to explain the context in which that experiment takes place. Was the plant in a test tube or in a farmer’s field? Was the rat well fed or starving? This logic also applies in the case of a participatory process, in which the each consultation event is analogous to an experimental subject. Each needs to proceed from an understanding of its our political, scientific, institutional and practical constraints.

So instead of recommending a perfect method of public engagement, Table 1 summarises some working principles for such processes, based on those used by PEALS at Newcastle University.

Nine principles of public engagement

1. Participants should join those organising the process in setting terms of reference for the whole exercise, and framing the questions that they will discuss.

2. The group organising, or in overall control of, the process should be broad based, including stakeholders with different interests on the subject being discussed.

3. There should be a diversity of information sources and perspectives available to participants.

4. There should be space for the perspectives of those participants who lack specialist knowledge of the area concerned to engage in a two-way exchange with those possessing specialist knowledge.

5. There should be complete transparency of the activities carried out within the process to those both inside and outside it.

6. Those without a voice in policy-making should be enabled to use the consultation process as a tool for positive political change. This should be embedded in the process by sufficient funds being made available for follow-up work after their initial conclusions have been reached.

7. The process should contain safeguards against decision-makers using a process to legitimise existing assumptions or policies.

8. All groups involved in the process should be given the opportunity to identify possible strategies for longer-term learning, development and change on a range of issues relating to their conclusions.

9. The group organising, or in overall control of, the process should develop an audit trail through the process, to explain whether policies were changed, what was taken into account, what criteria were applied when weighing up the evidence from the process, and therefore how the views of those involved in the participatory process may have made a difference. This should be explored together will as many those involved in all levels of the process as possible.

See also

For examples of public engagement, see also:


Study guide

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiversity

Welcome to the Unwin School of Public Engagement and Civic Innovation



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