Lessons learned from a UK-wide public dialogue
In 2022, ADR UK partnered with the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) to undertake a UK-wide public dialogue to explore public perceptions of ‘public good’ use of data for research and statistics.
Author: Shayda Kashef, Senior Public Engagement Manager, ADR UK Strategic Hub
Who carried out this project: Shayda Kashef and Mary Cowan, former Research Specialist at Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR).
Who to contact to find out more: If you have any questions on this project please either contact me at email@example.com or Sofi Nickson, Head of Research at OSR, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Both ADR UK and OSR independently published literature reviews in 2020 exploring public attitudes towards the linking and use of administrative data for research and the public good of statistics. In both cases, speaking directly to the public about their perceptions of the use of data for research and statistics was recommended as the next step. ADR UK and OSR wanted to explore different perspectives of the same question - combining budget and resource allowed us to carry out a public dialogue on a bigger scale than doing it individually.
We wanted to recruit participants who were adults living in the UK with little or no formal experience of data, and preferably those who have not previously engaged with research. ADR UK and OSR do not often carry out community outreach by way of a dialogue with the general public (i.e. those currently unengaged with research). There is also an awareness that some demographics are generally less engaged in research or data (or both). For these reasons, we felt it was important to speak to those we are less likely to reach via our social engagement channels.
68 members of the public took part in the dialogue; we aimed to recruit 70.
We wanted to include UK-wide perspectives, so we held workshops in four major cities: London, Cardiff, Glasgow and Belfast, with roughly ten people in each workshop. We also held an online workshop for those who couldn’t join in person; this included roughly 30 participants.
Project design: We hired an external social research company, Kohlrabi Consulting, to design and deliver the dialogue. The project was put out to tender and we contacted the social research companies we were already aware of, encouraging them to apply. This gave us a broad spread of bids to assess.
Project oversight: Before hiring Kohlrabi Consulting, we set up a Project Advisory Group made up of professionals with a variety of expertise (including in methodology, research ethics and integrity, public engagement, etc.). We set up regular meetings with this group and the pre-existing ADR UK Public Engagement Steering Group (PESG) to provide updates and receive feedback. The PESG also allowed us to share our workshop plan with the ADR Scotland Public Panel for feedback.
Project timeline: We began planning in autumn 2021. It took several months to complete the tender process. Kohlrabi Consulting were issued a contract in May 2022 and the final report was published in early October 2022.
Recruitment: To satisfy our participant criteria, Kohlrabi Consulting took a wide approach to recruitment via in-person leafletting at various community spaces and on social media. On their suggestion, Mary and I recorded videos introducing the project and encouraging people to get involved. This helped to personalise the online recruitment adverts.
Workshops: We held four in-person full-day workshops and one online full-day workshop. The first half of the day focused on discussions around defining data and statistics, using public sector data for research, and privacy and safeguards. These were done via a mix of presentations and activities to promote deliberative discussion. After lunch, further discussions were prompted by case studies of ‘good’, ‘acceptable’ and ‘harmful’ uses of data and statistics, and persona cards. The workshop ended on drawing conclusions. After we conducted some initial analysis, we held a follow-up online workshop with ten participants selected from the initial workshops. This was to verify project themes and consolidate UK-wide perspectives. Mary and I attended and took notes in all of the workshops.
Methodology: We took a deliberative approach to the workshop discussions. Deliberative techniques enable the incremental buildup of knowledge and shared understanding through interactive activities and knowledge sharing. They also give participants the tools to interrogate their learnings and original viewpoints.
While there were only roughly ten participants in each in-person workshop, we felt smaller groups would enable richer discussion by giving more people time to speak. We therefore split the participants into two groups. Similarly, participants who joined online were also put into small breakout groups.
The final report: Kohlrabi Consulting shared an initial draft which we developed into a final report. They also pulled out quotes and shared transcripts (after personal information had been redacted).
Collaborative working: Combining resources to jointly deliver this project was a huge success as neither ADR UK nor OSR would have been able to deliver the dialogue independently at the same scale. Working together gave rise to new perspectives and enabled us to challenge and work through our own biases. Engagement of this kind with the general public was also a milestone for both ADR UK and OSR. We speak more about this in our blog.
If you have a project you would like to do, but are constrained by either budget, resource, or both, it would be helpful to find out if there is anyone interested in investigating a similar topic.
External oversight over the life course of the project: Due to the nature of this project, we found engaging with the Project Advisory Group and Public Engagement Steering Group to be invaluable in shaping the dialogue. They provided feedback at key stages of the project, from recruitment to workshop design, and were given a draft of the final report to review before publication.
Unforeseen delays: We didn’t anticipate the tender process to take as long as it did, so we tried to be productive in that time by setting up the Project Advisory Group and developing workshop materials. These delays impacted our overall timeline for the project as we needed to publish a final report by early October. Some social research companies were put off by the shortened timeline, arguing there wasn’t enough time for particular stages of the project such as recruitment. I would advise not to impose a short timeline if possible.
Agreeing responsibilities: As this was a new experience, certain details were overlooked when commissioning Kohlrabi Consulting. This included agreeing on a clear division of responsibilities between ADR UK/OSR and Kohlrabi Consulting.
We assumed knowledge: This might be intuitive, but sense-checking workshop materials for accessibility was invaluable when it came to deliberating about data. While we did engage with a public panel on our workshop design, we would have benefitted from more thoroughly briefing external workshop facilitators on the nuances of data and how to navigate possible questions. I observed a handful of incidences in which our facilitators would have been better off with a more comprehensive understanding of data. Although the facilitators are experts in engagement, knowledge and understanding of the data landscape is also crucial to this type of public engagement activity.
The final report is a collaborative process: Whether you choose to draft the final report yourself or commission it out, it is likely that the final report will need several iterations. Data is complex and nuanced: in-house or specialist expertise is likely needed on top of what is delivered via an external social research company. It is helpful to build in time for yourself (and others) to review and reflect on your findings before publication.