As it has emerged as an area of professional practice, public debate has developed distinctive concepts and terminology, many of which are contested or reflect different preferences and commitments. The following is not intended to be a definitive explanation of the meaning of terms but merely to clarify how certain, potentially confusing, terms are used in this guide.
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.
The design and shaping of a process by participants either among themselves, with facilitation or by negotiation with the initiator of the public debate.
Elicitation of qualitative information with a view to modifying or confirming a proposed measure that is within the areas of responsibility of the initiator. Typically, the aim is to seek input from a wide range of perspectives. Consultation may be open to the public (especially on matters of public policy that may indirectly affect everyone) or target groups or individuals with specific interests, knowledge or expertise. Respondents are self-selecting.
Any discourse in which several individuals or groups interact to identify, explore and resolve their different viewpoints and interests, through the presentation of evidence, arguments and values. In this document, this more general concept of ‘debate’ is to be distinguished from that of a formal debate between two opposing sides on a motion proposed by one of them. (See also ‘public debate’)
Sustained discursive encounters in which participants address an issue of common interest by sharing information, examining evidence and engaging in mutually respectful argument.
‘Public dialogue’ is a form of deliberative engagement between professionals, policy makers and non-specialists, in which participants attend to and respond to each other, and which takes place on terms designed to neutralise asymmetries of power and knowledge.
In this guide ‘governance’ means the accountable use of power or authority to set, monitor, and enforce standards and behaviours within systems or organisations. It can mean both steering people’s behaviour and ensuring that they are held to account. Governance can be given effect through compulsory and non-compulsory measures (legal provision, licensing systems, professional norms, codes of conduct, recommendations etc.,). Governance can be a function of both public and private actors.
The person who takes the initiative in a public debate activity (see ‘invited/ uninvited public debate’). 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.
Invited/ uninvited engagement
In invited public debate a responsible authority invites members of the public to participate in an activity for a purpose that they have defined; in uninvited public debate, members of the public and civil society organisations make representations to a responsible authority in order to effect change.
Public authorities, experts and citizens all may be regarded as participants in a public engagement activity or debate.
Public / Publics
Many social scientists and public engagement practitioners prefer the plural term ‘publics’ to the singular ‘public’ to avoid implying the existence of a single homogeneous group or that ‘the public’ has objective existence independently of the issues in question.
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. (See also ‘debate’)
Public debate activity
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.
The space of public debate; a notional communicative environment in which private individuals can formulate and discuss societal challenges that affect them in common and influence policy. In practice, it may be supported by institutions, such as social and political institutions, and the media.
Qualitative / quantitative methods
Quantitative methods collect information which is output as numerical values (for example the number or proportion of people who give a particular answer to a question).
Qualitative methods provide discursive information and usually enable exploration of phenomena of interest in depth through interrogation and reflection.
Invited engagement may be set up in such a way as to be representative of the general population or of a particular subset of the population according to certain criteria, for example sociodemographic criteria. The appropriate size of a sample, the criteria for representativeness and the meaning that can be attributed to ‘representative’ findings all require careful critical reflection.
- 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