Julie Simon at Nesta has recently published an interesting and thought-provoking blog about the role of the public in making decisions, and how different beliefs about the 'wisdom of the crowd' lead to different assumptions about how best to organise public participation in democratic systems.
Whilst Julie's blog is very much about the political decision-making process, I read it with the social enterprise and charity sector in mind. The same question applies in both settings - what's the point of public engagement? Why should we ask the public what they think, and when and how is it appropriate to do so?
The answer depends on what we want to achieve by engaging the public. There is little value in participation for participation's sake; instead, it is useful to outline what knowledge or experience we believe people outside our organisation have, why we think it will be valuable to us, and how best we can extract that knowledge from them - or engage them in acting on that knowledge themselves.
Most charities already consult their service users as a matter of course, but what sort of assumptions have we made about their knowledge and participation beforehand? Are we giving them a genuine role in the decision-making process, or are we asking them to state a preference between options that have already been determined for them? Do we believe in a 'majority wins' system, or are we more interested in a deliberative process, where views are exchanged and consensus is built over a longer time period?
These are questions that have kept public servants, politicians and policymakers busy for many decades - even centuries - and the charity sector has a lot to gain from participating in the debate.
So, the critical task for public officials is to have greater clarity over the purpose of engagement - in order to better understand which methods of engagement should be used and what kinds of groups should be targeted.