Effectiveness through design
A key design principle for effective 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. is to enable participation. The most important features concern how the process design expresses or manages the power relations among those involved, including the various participants and those initiating the initiative. This can be improved by creating an environment and process that are adequately resourced, inclusive and enabling.
Allowing sufficient time for 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. may often be at odds with the need to make a policy decision on a pressing matter. Over-hasty decision making, however, runs the risk of simply deferring or displacing debate that may become more divisive or disruptive later.
Often the reasons for time pressure are contingent, for example, on securing reputational or economic advantage, and may be mitigated by foresight and anticipation. Any urgency may, however, need to be resisted where the quality of public decision making, rather than the outcome, is particularly important. This is likely to be the case where significant uncertainties persist, for example where risks and consequences are poorly defined and where there is significant ambiguity about meanings and values that people attach to the issue.
Commitment of resources
In order to enable participants public authorities, experts and citizens all may be regarded as participants in a public engagement activity or debate. to contribute meaningfully, public debate needs to be adequately resourced. Depending on the methodology and scale, public debate activities can be expensive. At the very least, the resourcing needs to be adequate for the approach taken.
Adequate resourcing demonstrates the commitment of initiators of public debate and may include not just meeting financial costs but also devoting time to supporting the process from conception to follow-up. Inadequate resourcing or ‘cutting corners’ can undermine public debate and lead to outcomes that can be counterproductive.
Where resources are limited, approaches can be framed to meet more limited objectives. Overreaching and over-claiming, by not respecting the methodological limitations of the process, could be counterproductive. Alternatively, resources might be expanded by working in partnership with professional or civil society organisations, although diligence will need to be exercised to ensure that such arrangements do not compromise the integrity of the partners or the process.
As well as adequate financial support, it is important that sufficient time is available to allow citizens A natural person subject to the laws and policies of a state and enjoying legal rights protected by that state. In compound terms such as ‘citizens’ assembly’, for example, the meaning of ‘citizen’ is broader than just those having nationality or entitled to vote in that state. to participate fully in public debate activities. Time may be required for adequate planning, to communicate with the intended audience, to allow to plan their involvement in the light of their other commitments, and to prepare themselves to participate. This is often at odds with the demands of responsive policy making. In most cases, it is important that time is allowed for participants to consider evidence and arguments, to discuss these with others (if appropriate), and to formulate their views.
Resisting pressures to reach hasty conclusions and allowing time for public debate may be more effective in the long run, especially when the issues to be debated are complex.
Thinking of public debate as part of a policy process from the beginning, rather than an optional ‘add-on’ exercise helps to ensure that the debate serves the purpose of informing the policy-making process.
Openness to uninvited public debate initiatives can help identify matters of public importance and provide a focus for further activities.
Having decided on an appropriate public debate activity, it is important to ensure that sufficient resources can be committed.
Opportunities for participation in public debate can be provided relatively easily, for example by facilitating online petitions.
Public debate activities that serve the interests of all participants can also justify sharing cost burdens.
Where possible making use of existing organisational infrastructures can be cost efficient, although possible embedded power structures and barriers to inclusion must be taken into account.
Meaningful participation and co-design
Respecting the interests of participants is a requirement for meaningful public debate. Participants’ interests may be respected by rewarding them financially for participation, even if it is only a nominal value. The rewards of participating in public debate, however, more often lie in the opportunity to influence public decision making (see next section) and to contribute in the shaping of our society. For effective public debate, it is necessary for participants to understand that they have a stake in the outcome and to realise that participation offers them a genuine influence over that outcome.
Framing questions for debate in an unbiased way, or even enabling participants to frame the questions in a way that is most meaningful to them and agreed between them (co-design The design and shaping of a process by participants either among themselves, with facilitation or by negotiation with the initiator of the public debate.), can help to maintain trust in the impartiality of the exercise.
Those initiating public debate activities may need conditionally to relinquish some power to the participants in exchange for their commitment. Likewise, the participants may feel they have a need for more information or a better understanding of different viewpoints before they can have a meaningful exchange over an issue. They should be given the opportunity to express such a need at an early stage of the planning so that relevant experts can be identified and involved in the process.
The initiator 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. should also be aware of possible imbalances between participants, e.g. differences in education and social status, which may call for a facilitator or intermediary to articulate relevant questions to the experts, making all voices and possible concerns heard.
Linking the public debate activity to a tangible outcome can give participants a clear stake in the process and encourage them to be more committed to it.
Participants’ interests in a public debate may be respected by involving them in the design of the process or the framing of the issues it addresses (co-design).
Empowering participants in public debate to determine what information they consider to be relevant may help to motivate them to participate, for example, by having the ability to select experts or obtain evidence to inform their views.
See Ireland and United Kingdom examples
Involving independent, impartial and professional facilitators and intermediaries can help to empower individual participants and marginalised subgroups.
Accessibility and inclusion
To speak of ‘public debate’ can also imply a public space where participants can express their interests freely. In reality, spaces of discourse are almost always structured by imbalances of power and knowledge, and their accessibility to all citizens is not necessarily equal or guaranteed. This applies just as much to the design of a questionnaire as to the physical accessibility of a venue.
Public debate takes place through the medium of language. Those for whom the local language is not their first language, for example, recent immigrants may require interpreters. Some who lack native language skills or basic education may be less adept with written communication. Literacy remains an issue in all member States. This can be compounded by the use of technical terms, which are particularly common in biomedicine. Differences in language capability can be particularly significant where there is less mediation, for example in online platforms, certain public media, and social media. For these reasons, considering alternative ways of communicating, by drawing and acting or showing videos and voting with “clickers” may stimulate the discussion. Information might be conveyed using multiple media (e.g. video, artworks) to stimulate discussion.
Certain interfaces may also present a problem: older people or those with less familiarity with technology, for example, may be less comfortable than others with online platforms and social media, so alternative or complementary means of involvement might need to be considered. Some people find certain media or environments unwelcoming.
The setting and mode for participation is equally important. For example, those with low social status or educational attainment may be less likely to take part in a seminar at a university building and to challenge others in face-to-face discussions.
Venues may need to be chosen to facilitate the participation of those with different access requirements, for example wheelchair users and those with baby carriages. Furthermore, the absence of facilities, such as restrooms, prayer rooms or nursing rooms, lack of free parking or accessibility by public transport, can prevent some from participating in an activity. The absence of a hearing loop or the presence of acoustic interference such as traffic noise or ambient noise, may make a venue unsuitable for a discussion with many participants.
The inclusion of everyone can also mean avoiding days on which some people are required to undertake religious observances and accommodating or compensating those with work commitments or childcare responsibilities.
Public debate needs to be inclusive and welcoming. Consideration should be given to what measures may be required to enable all participants to take part in a public debate activity on an equal footing with others. There may be a need to take specific steps to counteract insidious forms of social exclusion.
Attention should be paid to providing venues for debate that are accessible to all. Existing public institutions and venues, such as museums and exhibition spaces, and occasions on which people come together, such as science festivals and public events, can provide suitable venues for debate and also help to invigorate those sites as places for social interaction.
During a public debate, different forms and means of expression could be used to encourage participation, for example, using drawing and acting instead of spoken dialogue.
Initiators may need to take special steps to engage socially marginalised groups, for example through using peers, intermediaries or representatives.See United Kingdom example
Mechanisms may be needed to ensure that public debate activities respect the interests of all concerned, and, if necessary, are adapted in order to do so. This function should be separated both from the practical management and delivery of public debate initiatives, and from the commissioners, sponsors or addressees of such initiatives.
Some form of oversight, independent from the initiating organisation or commissioner, could be desirable as a part of the design of public debate activities. This might take the form of an independent oversight group or a person with independent authority.
Ireland - Public debate concerning abortion and the repeal of the eighth amendment to the constitution (2016)
A public debate activity was initiated concerning the repeal of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which prohibited abortion. The process involved the establishment of a Citizen’s Assembly that met five times in 2016 - 2017. Its conclusions in 2017 laid the groundwork for a decisive national referendum in May 2018. The commitment of sufficient time was an important factor in the effectiveness of the process.
The Irish Citizen’s Assembly was empowered to invite the experts it wanted to hear from and to question them in order to establish a solid basis for its deliberations.
United Kingdom - Public engagement on brain science, addiction and drugs (2007)
In a wide-ranging series of public debate activities around the theme “Public Engagement on Brain Science, Addiction and Drugs”, the participants were able to interact with a wide range of experts to inform their debate.
As part of the ‘Public Engagement on Brain Science, Addiction and Drugs’ public debate initiative steps were taken to ensure the active participation of recreational drug users and ex-drug users, not only those coming forward through patient organisations. These groups were enabled to develop their own preferred mode of participation, which they did by debating among themselves in a secure environment and designating intermediaries, with whom they had built up trusting relationships, to represent their views in the debate.
Finland - Citizen's initiative to the Parliament (2012)
Public debates can be costly, but there are also more affordable ways to create spaces for public influence. An example is the Finnish initiative to build an easily accessible website for the public to raise support for an issue that they wish to be addressed by Parliament. In its first six years, this initiative resulted in 37 petitions being debated.
France - Public debate on the law on bioethics (2018)
The French “États Généraux” initiative made use of existing regional forums in an efficient way, reaching out to the public across the country and overseas territories, and making it possible for the wider public to engage in national debate via a local infrastructure.
Poland - Constitutional week to inform and dialogue with citizens (2018)
The Polish Constitutional week makes use of the existing organisational infrastructure of schools and of other institutions to involve students with legal professionals by offering lectures in constitutional law as part of a public debate activity that has taken place annually across the country since 2015. It is a capacity-building exercise offered on a voluntary basis by legal scholars, free of charge.
Denmark - Public debate in Denmark on the future of the healthcare system (2008)
The participants in the public debate on the future of the Danish healthcare system discussed and later voted on very tangible questions, among other things setting principles for health care resource allocation and guidance for the policy makers.