New paper: Public participation organizations and open policy

I have a new fully open access paper in the current issue of the journal Science Communication which can be accessed here. This is the first of three empirical papers coming out of my PhD research on organisational learning in and around the UK Government-funded body Sciencewise.

Public participation organizations

The last two decades have witnessed the gradual institutionalisation of public participation in the UK with a new community of experts of participation, increasingly standardised methods of participation, the language of participation and inclusion being widely adopted in governing organisations, and the creation of a growing number of ‘organisations of participation’ with the specific aim of promoting and carrying out these practices. These developments, among other things, raise new challenges for scholarship which had previously been concerned with promoting, developing and evaluating these practices. Now there is also a need for academic work to engage with and try to understand this institutionalisation. More recently, these institutionalised deliberative practices have also been influenced by a different set of debates about democracy emphasising the need for ‘openness’ in governance, policy and data.

In this paper I tried to bring these two elements together in order to examine broader shifts in British democracy through the in-depth study of micro-level processes in governing organisations and one organisation of participation. The paper examines the interactions between Sciencewise – an established programme carrying out and promoting public dialogues around pressing science policy decisions – and emerging debates in the UK and beyond about the practice and potential of ‘open policy’. I argue that the involvement of members of the Sciencewise programme in the open policy debate, trying to position public dialogue as an exemplar of open policy practice, not only shaped open policy approaches in Government, but also stimulated processes of learning and reflection within the Sciencewise programme.

This learning led to some changes in the structure and activities of the programme, increased interest in digital methods of engagement and increased willingness to experiment with different ways of doing public dialogue, whereas before more static models of best practice had been promoted. In an internal process of reflection and agenda setting during the period of research, members of the Sciencewise programme agreed to reformulate its central aim to emphasise it’s role in bringing public voices into policy making processes, beyond a focus just on the practice and promotion of public dialogue.

The second part of the paper asks whether the institutionalisation of public participation practices in the UK – as illustrated by the endurance and growing profile of organizations like Sciencewise – and the recent growth of calls for open policy, governance, data and more signify more profound changes in British democracy. I examine this question using Sheila Jasanoff’s definition of a constitutional moment –  a brief period in which the basic rules of political practice are rewritten, altering relations between citizens and the state. Examining the UK situation using Jasanoff’s criteria reveals some significant shifts in the relationship between citizens and the state, where even 50 years ago citizens would have been highly unlikely to be granted the right to have a say on science policy decisions affecting their lives. However, my research points to the importance of also paying attention to shifts at the micro-level within organisations, or over shorter periods of time, in order to understand the contradictions and multi-directionality of apparent moves towards openness and inclusion.

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