Co-producing a public dialogue: By Anita van Mil

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Every dialogue contractor will recognise that feeling when it’s all over and done. Firstly, when you say goodbye to the last participant and the room goes quiet and then again when all the data is analysed and translated into a narrative for a dialogue findings report. It is a bit like finishing a good book. The story you’ve immersed yourself in for a while has ended and you feel at a loss. No more updates to look forward to, no continuation of the storyline. Or in dialogue terms, no more email exchanges and telephone calls with the client, no more discussions with the dialogue participants, no more brain stretching exercises trying to design a process to ensure policy makers will get rich data whilst participants feel comfortable sharing their views.

Embedding wellbeing science in policy making
This is what happened to me and Henrietta after completing the Embedding wellbeing science in policy making dialogue, led by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) and Cabinet Office and part-funded by Sciencewise. November 2014 saw the culmination of what was an intense period of collaboration between NEF and HVM on the design, delivery and reporting of three dialogues some with the public, some with stakeholders covering three policy areas in 15 sessions:

  • Reducing loneliness (Social Action Unit, Cabinet Office)
  • Increasing the incomes of low earners (Department for Work and Pensions)
  • Increasing the uptake of Community Rights (Department for Communities and Local Government)

Pondering why the wellbeing dialogue had such an impact on us as a team I’m pretty sure it is because this project was more firmly rooted in the principle of co-production. This wasn’t the type of dialogue where the dialogue contractor and Sciencewise DES are the dialogue experts and therefore design the process. NEF, as one of the leading think tanks in the UK and early contributors to theories about co-production in public policy, played a major role at every stage of the wellbeing dialogue, which has been a fascinating experience.

Benefits of co-production in designing a public dialogue
Public dialogue is by its very nature of course a co-production between the public and policy-makers. The benefits for dialogue design are clear:

  • A dialogue process that is owned by the client in every respect
  • 100% commitment to the process (NEF had representatives at every single dialogue session)
  • 100% commitment to using the dialogue outcomes for the benefit of dialogue participants (mulling the dialogue findings over and over again to ensure a true representation of public voices)
  • An extra layer of analysis of dialogue findings (HVM produced summary findings within 48 hours of each dialogue for use by NEF in meetings with policymakers)
  • Translation of dialogue findings into policy recommendations (NEF’s Talking Wellbeing report).

As a result, the Embedding wellbeing science into policy-making dialogue has led to an immediate consideration of public concerns and ideas for improved policies to alleviate loneliness, increase the incomes of low earners and an increased uptake of community rights.

Lessons learned
Here are some of the lessons learned from this intensive and rewarding co-production process:

  • Allocate sufficient resources for project management (co-production requires a lot of meetings)
  • Allocate sufficient resources to the design stage of the process and agree the maximum number of process iterations prior to embarking on the project
  • Ensure that topic specialist input is provided at a stage in the process when there is still plenty of scope to amend the plans
  • Be clear at all times with all involved what the final deadline is for feedback on process plans, stimulus materials, presentations etc.

And last but not least: mark the fact that everything is over and done with and make sure you celebrate success!