Public engagement in the vacuum does not exist

One of the main outputs expected from the PE2020 project is the development of a web-based toolkit that, helps policy makers to adopt, adjust and implement public engagement processes for their different needs. Starting from February 2015, under WP3, six pilot initiatives have been launched, of which three in Finland and three in Italy. Some of the initiatives have been concluded while others are still ongoing. Therefore, the results of the pilots are still to be fully identified and developed. However, some preliminary outputs can be mentioned, especially for what concerns obstacles and potentials of public engagement practices, which can be extremely relevant with the PE2020 Toolkit design process. (A toolkit design document can be found here.)

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Undoubtedly, one of the key elements emerging from the pilot initiatives is the necessity to strongly contextualise public engagement initiatives. There is no public engagement tool or approach that fits all organisations and aims. The same tool and approach could assume a set of meanings in a given context and another one in another context. This element clearly emerged from the context-tailoring workshop held in Finland, but also from the Dialogue Workshop on mobility and transportation especially by comparing the experiences made in the Naples area and those carried out in Zurich.

The concept of context is quite large. It may include, for example key regulators and regulations at national and international level (e.g., in the EU), the role and nature of the bodies funding the public engagement initiative, the features and past experience of the organisation(s) where the public engagement initiative is conducted, the features of the key stakeholders or the existing cultural and social representations of science and technology.

In this perspective, contextualising public engagement initiatives from the very beginning is inevitably a step to take in order to avoid or, at least, reduce the risk of wasting time and resources or, worse, producing counterproductive effects. Contextualisation implies a deep preliminary analysis (of, e.g., needs and expectations about public engagement, available resources and opportunities, existing risks and obstacles, key stakeholders’ attitudes and behaviours, or leadership support) leading to a designing and implementation process, allowing to effectively identify the methods used, the objectives pursued or the players involved. This clearly suggests that public engagement in the vacuum does not exist. Discussing of PE tools without making reference to the application context is only an abstraction. The only public engagement, which actually exists, is the public engagement in the context.

– Luciano –