In the Goldfish Bowl – digital engagement and public dialogue

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This morning I was pleased to be able to share a Sciencewise Civil Service Live session* with Anthony Zacharzewski, Roland Jackson and Go-Science’s Claire Craig to discuss the new Sciencewise publication  In the goldfish bowl: science and technology policy dialogues in a digital world.

You don’t need an understanding of dialogue to understand the gist of the session or the paper – but if you’re really interested, have a look at how Sciencewise explains the role of deliberative public dialogue.  We’ll wait on you til you get back!

Anthony, one of the paper’s authors – was keen to stress that  – while focusing on the role of digital within that dialogue process – the lessons can be applied to any policy situation.  For me, that makes it a great addition to the online/open policy mix – and one more way that we can get policy types interested and enthused in digital at all stages of the policy process.  That’s something that’s exercising me and colleagues right now as we build up to some sustained activity this autumn.

Sciencewise has dipped its toes in digital waters before, supporting the brilliant DECC My2050 simulation project, to enable individuals to think about how future energy policies could and should be shaped.  And that also has a nice link to social sharing

But this report looks at the benefits of fully integrating digital engagement into the dialogue process, and sets out a useful typology that can be used for deciding which tools can be used in the process.  The typology could itself prove really valuable  in getting people to think about first what they want to use digital tools to achieve, rather than focusing on a particular tool or platform.

Digital engagement, it’s argued, can support the dialogue process in two ways:

  • by increasing the public’s ability to participate in democratic discussion
  • by expanding the footprint of dialogue by involving more people in the process and broadening out the conversation.

That last point’s an important one, as traditionally dialogue exercises have not been about scale, choosing instead to probe public opinion in a very in-depth and focused way which has been useful in shaping debate – and ultimately policy – in areas as diverse as the use of mitochondria DNA, synthetic biology,  energy challenges, and more.

Anthony and co-authors argue that digital tools can supplement the traditional approach…

“The core benefit of digital engagement to dialogue is that it allows dialogue to take place in a “goldfish bowl” – visible to the outside world but separate from it,  In the world outside the fishbowl, separate discussions and communications take place that boost the impact of the excercise”

I have to admit I hadn’t heard of the offline “fishbowl deliberation” techniques mentioned, but the concept of amplifying a dialogue beyond the core participants, and listening to online conversations is a familiar theme.

Our session seemed to be well-received by all those attending, with all of us stressing to the participants that policy makers need to start being more aware of the conversations that are going on around them about their policies.  And there seemed to be genuine enthusiasm in the room, as well as concerns about how digital engagement could change the role of the civil servant, and how to deal with a concerted online campaign.  But one key takeaway was hearing – for the second time in a few weeks – a senior civil servant arguing that we have to get digital, and enthusing about how the world of policy making would change irreversibly because of that engagement.

* Here are my slides…

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