Mikko Rask and Richard Worthington
The term public engagement (PE) refers to processes that provide a distinct role for citizens or stakeholder groups in policymaking. Such engagement is distinctive because it aims to create opportunities for mutual learning among policymakers, scientists, stakeholders, and members of the public. In so doing, PE involves a particular type of voice in public debate and policymaking that is different from more established discourses, such as those expressed through official policymaking channels, scientific institutions, civil society activists, or the public media. By the early 1970s, PE had emerged in the context of an overall democratization movement in Western societies through such innovations as the “citizen jury” in the United States and “planning cells” in Germany. Today, it is often more pragmatically motivated, such as in the European Commission, where PE is seen as a tool for responsible research and innovation that helps to anticipate and assess potential implications and societal expectations of research and innovation, as well as to design more inclusive and sustainable research policies.
The first global PE processes in history were created to incorporate citizen voices into United Nations (UN) conventions on biodiversity and climate change. Building on theories of deliberative democracy and tested PE practices, a new World Wide Views process was developed to provide informed and considered input from ordinary citizens to the 2009 UN climate summit. This and subsequent World Wide Views (WWViews) deliberations have demonstrated that PE may potentially open up policy discourses that are constricted and obfuscated by organized interests. A telling example is provided by the World Wide Views on Climate and Energy deliberation held on June 5, 2015, where nearly 10,000 ordinary citizens gathered in 76 countries to consider and express their views on the issues to be addressed at the UN climate summit in Paris later that year. In a noteworthy departure from prevailing media and policy discourses, two-thirds of the participating citizens saw measures to fight climate change as “mostly an opportunity to improve our quality of life,” while only a quarter saw them as “mostly a threat to our quality of life,” a result that was consistent across high-, middle-, and low-income countries.
Recent research on PE has indicated that when effectively implemented, such processes can increase the legitimacy, quality, and capacity of decision-making. Earlier aspirations for broader impacts, such as the democratization of policymaking at all levels, are now less prominent but arguably indispensable for achieving both immediate and longer-range goals. The relatively new concept of a deliberative system captures this complexity by moving beyond the narrow focus on single PE events encountered in much research to date, recognizing that single events rarely affect the course of policymaking. The evolving prospects for PE in biodiversity and climate change policy, therefore, can be seen as requiring ongoing improvements in the capacities of the deliberative system.