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In the Goldfish Bowl: Science and technology policy dialogues in a digital world

This June 2013 thought piece from Sciencewise-ERC  explores the opportunities and challenges of engaging online. The report  represents a systematic attempt by Sciencewise to bring together two trends in public policy decision making: digitalization and open government, with a focus on how public dialogue efforts can harness the full potential of online and digital technologies. The Sciencewise-ERC is the UK's national centre for public dialogue in policy making involving science and technology issues. It provides co-funding and specialist advice and support to Government departments and agencies to develop and commission public dialogue activities in emerging areas of science and technology. The publication is authored by Susie Latta, Charlotte Mulcare and Anthony Zacharzewski from the Democratic Society.

From the Executive Summary:

Public opinion is increasingly driven by information obtained through digital means and policy makers are shifting the bulk of engagement exercises and public opinion-gathering online. Even where policy makers use offline tools such as focus groups or deliberative dialogue, these activities take place against a background of digitally-mediated understanding. Digital engagement, if used well, can:
  • Amplify the impact of offline engagement and create better starting conditions for offline events
  • Help to build a baseline of technical knowledge to inform discussion
  • Widen access and increase transparency
On the negative side, digital routes can quickly spread misinformation that distorts or oversimplifies information, thereby undermining related policy debate. Similarly, digital media can exacerbate the problem of over-simplifying complex technological points, and can also be used to present a baseline of opinion rather than knowledge. In this report, Sciencewise-ERC has developed a typology for digital engagement that illustrates how two key considerations, topic and method, can be used to group different digital communication tools, so that policy makers can match technique to need. Reviewing current engagement with science-based policy, several key themes emerge as critical success factors:
  • utilising existing networks;
  • harnessing multiple digital channels;
  • using trusted experts to engage directly with participants in engagement;
  • looking to citizen-led participation;
  • ensuring transparency and openness throughout;
  • enabling the public to have a key role in setting the agenda for discussion;
  • bringing dissenters/sceptics into the debate;
  • informing how opinions have been taken on board; ensuring sufficient accessibility of technical information for those wishing to ‘mine into the data’;
  • and honesty during controversy.
Looking to the future, digital methods are increasingly likely to dominate engagement in science-based policy, perhaps even becoming the primary portal for debate. Resource Link: www.sciencewise-erc.org.uk/cms/in-the-goldfish-bowl-science-and-technology-policy-dialogues-in-a-digital-world/ Download it directly at www.sciencewise-erc.org.uk/cms/assets/Uploads/In-the-goldfish-bowl-FINAL-VERSION.pdf

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