As engagement practitioners and researchers, we have seen first hand the value of involving the public in decision-making processes. In times of crisis, when decisions are being taken quickly, and the world is changing rapidly around us, public involvement is more important than ever. While it may feel more challenging to achieve in the circumstances of lockdown, it is possible, and deeply needed.
One example of the types of societal questions that are currently missing public inputs is the approach the government should take in handling COVID-19 and the exit strategy. As the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and Involve have already argued, it is welcome that the government has been guided by scientific advice, but science or technology in isolation cannot determine the choice of strategies, or determine which risks are worth running. Questions of public policy necessarily require judgements and values, and mounting evidence shows that collective intelligence does a better job of ensuring these are reflected in decisions than relying on expertise in isolation.
Throughout May 2020, while the UK is in lockdown as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, together with Traverse, Involve and Bang the Table, we will conduct a rapid, online deliberation with 28 members of the public on COVID-19 exit strategies.
In this first deliberative trial, we will be looking at the most topical subject matter – how COVID-19 exit strategies are shaping or changing the way the public thinks and feels about areas such as privacy, trust, solidarity and human rights. The focus will be on citizens’ changing relationship with these norms as a result of the deployment of data and digital technologies in the pandemic response.
Find out more about the project methodology and findings here.
We are doing this as openly as we can, as during this time we think it is essential that researchers, policymakers, and the public share lessons and learn from each other. We are doing this independently – this hasn’t been commissioned by government or the NHS. It is being funded and supported by the organisations involved who believe in the importance of the work.
Principles of deliberative practice
1) A learning experience, and concerned with evidence: Participants are required to learn in some depth about the topic under consideration, and interrogate the evidence from different perspectives before reaching a conclusion.
- We will be presenting information about COVID-19, proposed exit strategies and related technology to ensure a shared understanding among the participants. It’s customary to invite a range of experts to present to the mini-public, and then be questioned as part of a deliberation, which we also plan to do.
2) Long-form and reflective: It’s important that participants have time to develop their views over a period of time, rather be called on to give initial, surface reactions. In face-to-face events this is often done over a day, or a series of full-day events.
- For this pilot, we are spreading our activities over three–and–a–half weeks, and incorporating reflective journalling activities to give participants time to gather their thoughts over the period .
3) Hearing a diversity of voices: Participants are usually selected through stratified random sampling or quota sampling so that the group reflect the diversity of the general UK population. This is not for generalising the findings (as in quantitative work) but rather to ensure that a range of views are present, and that participants hear a variety of perspectives, enabling them to challenge their own, and each other’s views. This supports the development of more rounded, considered opinions.
- We have created a simple sample for our group of participants, based on rural and urban location, and a mix of ages and other key demographics.
4) Embracing complexity, while exploring consensus: Deliberation is most helpful when navigating complex and controversial topics as it provides space for participants to consider difficult trade-off, and weigh the long-term consequences of issues or decisions. Deliberation may seek consensus, but acknowledges that full consensus may not be reached, focusing instead on understanding the values and belief that drive irreconcilable differences.
- We will be using a range of tools and facilitation techniques, as in face-to-face methods to support participants in thinking through these topics, and testing out their shared and divergent views.