HOW THE TOOLKIT WAS MADE

The Toolkit is one of the main products of the Public Engagement Innovations for Horizon 2020 (PE2020) Project, coordinated by the University of Helsinki and funded with a contribution of the European Commission Directorate General for Research and Innovation. Its contents and structure have been developed on the basis of the many and often contradictory outputs emerging throughout the three-year long project.

Public engagement at the crossroad

The first part of PE2020 was primarily devoted to an analysis of the state-of-the-art and trends in the field of public engagement with science and technology, on the basis of empirical data collected through an inventory of more than 280 PE initiatives and an in-depth study of 38 innovative PE cases. The emerging picture suggested the idea of public engagement as at the threshold of a critical turn.

In the last three decades, PE developed rapidly, thanks to the action of some national governments and the European institutions but mainly under the pressure of a increasingly wide movement – involving researchers, NGOs, and many other stakeholders – engaged to promote more advanced and democratic forms of governance of science and technology. Many facts show this trend, including: the increasing number of PE experiences in Europe as well as in other regions of the World; the wide diversification and specialisation of PE tools (the inventory of the 280 PE initiatives allowed to identify as many as 76 different PE mechanisms); the shaping and consolidation of an increasingly wide community of practitioners and experts on public engagement approaches and techniques; the increasing interests of researchers on PE, as shown by the growing number of papers, articles and scientific meetings devoted to it.

At the same time, the picture emerging from PE2020 also highlighted how PE still play a marginal role within research institutions. Apart from some specific cases, the majority of research organisations did not develop so far any policy or measure to support PE and in many cases PE is seen as something related to communicating science and not to changing the governance of science.

As said above, the analysis suggested the need for a leap forward in promoting the diffusion and strengthening the role of public engagement.

Innovative public engagement

In this context, PE2020 focused the attention on two main issues.
The first issue was the contribution PE is able to give for actually improving the governance of science. The key argument was that the still marginal role played by PE is due to the fact that research managers and researchers use only elementary PE mechanisms or use more advanced approaches to PE but not being aware of their actual potential.

Hence the need for the project to go in-depth into the question of what makes a PE tool actually innovative. To cope this question, two key actions have been made, i.e.:

  • a second-tier analysis of the 38 innovative PE cases, also adopting a non-conventional approach (that of the so-called “cognitive map”) in order to reconstruct logic and motivations underlying each case and
  • the review and refinement of all the concepts revolving around PE with the aim to better define innovativeness in public engagement.

These actions led to some relevant results.

One of the emerging point was that public engagement is actually innovative when is able (or put in a condition) to fostering and accelerating the shift of research organisations towards dynamic governance. This concept refers to the ability of policy making to handle issues in a rapidly changing environment requiring continuous adjustment of policies and programmes. In this framework, dynamic governance involves dynamic interactions between scholars, citizens, industry and government as an exploratory, inductive approach in setting performance standards for responsible research and innovation.

Innovativeness becomes there a key concept here. In the case of PE, it does not refer to simply developing new PE tools, but to use and develop PE tools actually able to trigger and drive new institutional changes in the direction of more dynamic forms of governance within research organisations.

The analysis also showed that the links between public engagement and dynamic governance are multiple and variable. They cannot be fully planned, being dependent upon many contextual factors. This means that any research organisation has to find its own way to establish these links, on the basis of a self-assessment process, even though these links are anyhow necessary for improving the quality of policy making and even the quality of research.

Testing public engagement

The link between PE and dynamic governance and the connected reflection on innovativeness led PE2020 to focus on a second issue, that of the actual feasibility of innovative PE mechanisms.

In particular, the question was whether PE (understood as a strategic tool for favouring more advanced forms of governance) requires an overall and profound restructuring process of research organisations or it can be also effective when used on specific segments of the research organisation, decision making processes or research processes.

In this framework, under PE2020, six pilot projects have been designed and implemented, with the aim so to say “PE in action” and observing the social and organisational dynamics it activates, also when applied in small-scale situations.

The pilot projects allowed to get first-hand information about public engagement, including obstacles, drivers, impacts, level of acceptance and reactions. Most of this information is embedded in this Toolkit.

Beyond that, the pilots led to three general conclusions.

The first conclusion is that PE, if consciously adopted as a tool for improving the governance of organisational processes, may be highly effective also when applied on small segments of the organisation or specific organisational process. This means that PE does not necessarily follow the “all-or-nothing” logic but can be used gradually and partially.

The second conclusion is that, to be effective, PE is to be somehow embedded as an institutional component of the research organisation although the intensity and modes of such an embedment may largely vary. In fact, a continuity in the adoption of PE is necessary, in order to make it a function of the organisation or, better, a permanent resource to be used by the organisation when needed. Considering PE simply as an event to be organised makes it something structurally external to the organisation and incapable to activate any process of change in it.

The third conclusion is that PE has, in itself, a high mobilisation capacity. In every pilot project, the concerned people reacted immediately and positively towards their possible involvement in a PE exercise. This does not mean that people is always interested in participating or is motivated to get involved. On the contrary, many facts show that mobilising people and stakeholders with science and technology is often troublesome. Rather, this means that public engagement, when used within a strategic perspective (and not, for example, for tokenism, for merely communicating science or for building a consensus around decisions already taken elsewhere) is able to create an enabling environment for raising participation and promoting a sense of “scientific citizenship” which is too often lacking both in research institution and in the society at large.