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The economic case for public engagement

Edward Andersson plays Scrooge.

The UK’s leading position in upstream engagement and dialogue is not universally popular. A number of researchers feel that public engagement is a distraction from their real work. For some it appears an expensive luxury which adds nothing to their careers or research as a whole. Current budget cuts make it all the more important to make the economic case for public engagement.

The most commonly mentioned benefits of engagement, such as social capital, confidence building, trust and legitimacy are intangible, and cannot be measured in monetary terms. Other arguments for public engagement paint it as a normative democratic right. For some researchers, all this seems vague and unscientific. So are there any compelling reasons for a hardnosed cynic to do public engagement.

Problems of evidence

As someone who has studied the costs and benefits of engagement for almost a decade, I find it frustrating that, in many cases, hard evidence eludes us. This is not for lack of trying.
The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence tried to construct a cost effectiveness model for community engagement in 2008 but did not find the results informative. The problems that NICE encountered have dogged everyone who tries to provide hard proof of the monetary benefits of engagement. It is hard to find comparators for engagement. Attribution of impact is hard or impossible to define, and there is a lack of data. Also the outcomes from engagement can take months or years to take effect. It is difficult to know which aspect of the engagement was responsible for the benefits. It is hard to find comparators for outcomes, and hard to translate outcomes into data that could be measured or translated into forms that could be monetised. Despite these difficulties, there are some things that can be said about engagement and value for money, often drawing on evidence from beyond science and technology.

Better economy

For society as a whole, there is some evidence that more citizen participation brings economic benefits. Feeling connected to others in society, feeling engaged and able to influence has been linked to better health and longevity, more economic efficiency and stronger economic growth. These societal benefits will be too broad for many scientists who will be looking for benefits closer to home.

Direct benefits

Engagement has been linked to a number of direct benefits, affecting public services and policy. As early as 1994, The World Bank compared the costs and benefits over time of its participatory and non-participatory programmes. It found that participation by beneficiaries was ‘the single most important factor in determining overall quality of implementation’, and made a significant contribution to project effectiveness, including resulting in lower operational costs such as maintenance.

The overall evaluation of the government’s Sciencewise programme, which helps policy makers interact with the public before making key decisions on science and technology policy, found that the various dialogues it commissioned contributed to a number of positive outcomes. These included increased public trust in science and public institutions by increasing openness and transparency in decision-making processes; building skills and enthusiasm for active citizenship and science amongst participants; and building social cohesion and social capital by bringing diverse types of people together in a safe environment.

In our work we’ve come across calculations of how much money is saved in crime prevention or public health work where public engagement is used. In some cases, engagement has contributed to substantial reductions in crime (estimated to amount to hundreds of thousands of pounds of savings) as well as non-monetary improvements such as massive increases in satisfaction rates.

Changing attitudes

There is also a growing body of evidence showing that deliberative public engagement plays a key role in changing the attitudes of those taking part. An example of why this is important from an economic perspective can be found in a consultation report from Leicestershire County Council. In 2009, it consulted the public on their budget using both traditional surveys and deliberative sessions. The survey results indicated that the public wanted reductions in council tax whilst maintaining or increasing the level of service provision. At the start of the deliberative exercises the participants held similar views; after deliberating, however, the number of people who felt council tax was too high fell from 53 per cent to 31 per cent.

The amount of money the participants were willing to put up for cuts increased by a factor of 20 through the deliberation. This opened up policy options that were not feasible previously.

Risk management

We also need to take into account the costs of not doing engagement, which can be significant. A key economic benefit of engagement is as an insurance policy against public outcry and scandal.
The evaluation of the Sciencewise dialogues showed that they increased the participants’ confidence about the safety and robustness of decisions. Dialogue also provided researchers and policy makers with reassurance from having opened up the issues to public challenge, and testing their assumptions about public views. ‘Upstream engagement’ is widely seen as a way to avoid unforeseen later conflict by identifying difficult issues early, at a stage where they can be dealt with before becoming entrenched.

In many fields, policy failure is so expensive that engagement is undertaken as an insurance policy. The Environment Agency carried out calculations of how engagement might help to reduce the risk of policy failure. They found that since engagement costs were small in comparison to the benefits that flood prevention schemes could provide, and the costs of a failed scheme were so high, engagement paid for itself as an insurance policy.

Agricultural research

One of the most compelling case studies of the value of engagement comes from the field of participatory agricultural research. Researchers studied three cases from around the developing world where farmers were involved in agricultural research, and compared them to non-participative research projects.

In the case of a soil conservation project in Honduras, it was found to be considerably more costly than most non-participative projects. However it more than made up for this in higher agricultural yields. The study estimated that the participative project cost approximately US$208 per hectare, whereas the cost per hectare for two non-participative projects in Honduras from the same timeframe was between US$6,414 and US$2,000.

Benefits for researchers

Benefits are not just for organisations. Engagement can also provide priceless information, insight and inspiration to researchers themselves. Over five years ago, Involve ran the Nanotech Engagement Group. One of the quotes that has stuck with me was one researcher who told us that engagement had made him think about his subject matter differently: ‘I’ve been thinking more about what effects my work may have in the future,’ he said. ‘It’s led me to write a grant proposal for further research (…) It was the fact that one of the women asked us a question and we just couldn’t answer, because we don’t know the answer.’

Public engagement can create a better society, save money and reduce the risks of conflict. And it can also reignite the curiosity and excitement which drove people to become scientists in the first place. We have a long way to go to put a definitive value on the benefits that engagement brings to science and technology, but we can begin to appreciate a rough estimate. As Keynes once said: ‘It is better to be roughly right than precisely wrong.’

Edward Andersson
Edward Andersson is the Deputy Director of Involve. He is setting up a Community of Practice for Public Engagement as part of the Sciencewise programme
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