3.2 Public consultation vs public engagement
‘Public consultation’ is not a new concept in policy making. For society to function effectively, laws and policies must have public support. It is desirable, therefore, to have some idea of what the public thinks about an issue before regulation is finalised. Consultation is based on establishing the nature of a socially collective view that we call ‘public opinion’. The main means of establishing public opinion with at least some degree of confidence is the opinion poll, the methodology for which has become increasingly sophisticated. Polls deliver useful quantitative data, but they cannot tell us much about the nuances of the views of individuals or why people hold certain opinions. For more qualitative (descriptive) data, the government or a local authority might declare a consultation period, for the duration of which the public is invited to send in representations to be considered during the decision-making process.
Although public consultation is in keeping with the spirit of democracy, the consultation model is still essentially deficit in its approach. In general, the respondents play no part in framing the questions or in subsequent discussions about policy. The concept of public engagement, on the other hand, describes a mechanism that attempts to be much more inclusive. Engagement aspires to incorporate lay views – and specifically lay values – in the decision-making process, thus giving citizens more of an active, participatory role.
A concern expressed by many experts is that public opinion, in its broadest sense, is not sufficiently ‘informed’ to be accorded a meaningful role in decision making. Common sense dictates that some familiarity with the processes, prospects, risks and benefits of new technology is a prerequisite for participating in decision making about policy. It is thought that lay people also feel more comfortable in making recommendations if they have an understanding of the issue under consideration (Klüver, 1995). Consensus conferences are mechanisms of public participation that seek to address some of these concerns surrounding input of lay voices in policy making.