Effectiveness through conduct
A key principle of public debate In this document and in Article 28 of the Oviedo Convention the overarching concept of ‘public debate’ is used to describe discursive interactions in the public sphere (that is, not in a professional context) through which individuals and groups may identify, explore and resolve their different interests in matters that affect (or potentially affect) them all. is that it should respect the interests and freedoms of participants Public authorities, experts and citizens all may be regarded as participants in a public engagement activity or debate., a principle which also lies at the foundation of human rights. The effectiveness of public debate activities An organised activity, delimited in scope, intended to stimulate and to attend to public debate on a specific theme in the expectation that it will inform or influence policy development or governance. cannot be assured by design alone but requires them to be conducted in accordance with principles of procedural justice.
Procedural measures can help to counteract imbalances or inequalities among those involved, including those participating in and those initiating or sponsoring public debate activities.
Identifying or setting out principles of conduct to be observed in a public debate activity can help to increase transparency and support accountability.
Respect for all participants may involve paying special attention or taking special steps to encourage and enable the participation of certain groups, and to ensure that all voices are given a fair hearing, including those expressing contrary or unorthodox views. It is important that the focus in a public debate should be the issue to be debated and not on the person debating it.
In particular, respect for ethnic, cultural, religious and socio-demographic differences, and the equal entitlement of all participants to have their views taken into account should be ensured. Demonstrating respect and fairness encourages trust in the initiative.
Moderation or independent, impartial and skilled facilitation can help to ensure that all participants have a fair opportunity for their views to be heard, regardless of social, political, educational and economic differences.
The personal, lived experiences of individuals can offer important insights alongside data and factual evidence. Individuals may find their personal experiences relevant to public debate and may wish to share them with others. It is important that debate offers a ‘safe space’ in which to do so. Respecting privacy by protecting the anonymity of participants might be important, for example to protect participants from media intrusion. This may, in any case, be a legal requirement of data protection law.
The participation of some individuals may expose them to vulnerability, stigmatisation, discrimination or even direct harm. This can be particularly important to consider where an activity involves the participation of children and young people. Many biomedical developments raise issues that impact disproportionately across differences of gender, age and health status or disability, which entails a risk of compounding structural inequalities if disadvantaged groups cannot participate fairly in debating them.
Where the participation of particular groups or individuals affected by a proposed measure is important, and direct involvement poses a threat to their privacy, alternative means of enabling participation should be considered. For example, this can be done by video link, through trusted intermediaries or by written submissions. If participation from particularly affected individuals requires anonymity, the legitimacy of the process could be maintained for example through independent assurance.
It is necessary to consider the potential for conflict between the importance of transparency and the need to protect the privacy of individuals participating in a public debate.
It might be appropriate to engage different publics separately where, for structural or contingent reasons, certain subgroups cannot participate on an equal footing with others.
A rule like the ‘Chatham House Rule’ (that information received may be subsequently disclosed so long as neither the identity of the information provider nor of any other participant is revealed) may allow people engaging in public debate to express opinions without fear of negative consequences for doing so. If this is to apply it should be agreed at the outset and credibly enforced.
Transparency of interests
Transparency is an important aspect of fairness. Initiators The person who takes the initiative in a public debate activity. The initiator will usually provide or co-ordinate the resources for the activity and may commission specialists to facilitate or deliver the activity on their behalf. and participants alike should be transparent about their aims and interests in sponsoring or participating in public debate, and about the sources of any funding. Because of their interests, it is often appropriate for sponsors of initiatives to separate themselves or to involve independent professionals to conduct public debate activities on their behalf.
Relevant interests are not limited to public interests. Personal interests should also be taken into account and be declared, as hidden personal interests of participants, experts or stakeholders can undermine trust and the credibility of the outcome of the public debate. Having an interest in the issue at hand should not, however, prevent involvement. On the contrary, it is a reason for involvement. However, on matters of public interest, it should not entail privileged influence.
Initiators, experts, sponsors and participants should disclose any relevant interests they have in the initiative or its outcome. This might be done when introducing themselves to others for the first time or, in the case of experts by a written declaration of interest.
It is important that people participate candidly and in good faith, rather than manipulating public debates for private interest. This is particularly important where questions of scientific fact and evidence are relied on in public debate and when expert testimony is involved. The use of clear, non-technical and unambiguous language is desirable to avoid misunderstanding. Those offering expert evidence should explain any uncertainties and limits of technical knowledge. Honesty about sources is important. Experts should be reminded to avoid evaluative language and to reserve their personal opinions.
It is important to ensure that relevant evidence is given due attention and that the balance of expert opinion is fairly represented.
Experts should be asked to be transparent about known risks and consequences, and the limits of knowledge and prediction.
Sometimes expert cross-examination or the participation of experts with contrary views can help to achieve balance where impartiality is unlikely.
- I. Guide to Public Debate on Human Rights and Biomedicine
- II. The need for public debate
- III. Preparing for public debate
- IV. Effective public debate
- V. Public debate that counts
- VI. Conclusions
- Examples of public debate
- Selected resources