Under the surface of a public consultation: Part 2 – planning and design (from @opmnetwork)

This is the second in a 5-part series from Dialogue by Design (part of the OPM Group), showing how they consult and report on contentious subjects, in this case a recent consultation conducted on behalf of the HFEA.

As we heard last time, for the past year Dialogue by Design, part of the OPM Group, has been delivering a large-scale public consultation commissioned by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) on new IVF-based techniques to avoid mitochondrial disease. This week, we’re considering the process of planning and designing a large-scale public consultation, the challenges involved in consulting on contentious subjects, and some tried and tested practices that help ensure accurate and in-depth results.

The first challenge in any public consultation is establishing the right questions to ask. Not only do the questions need to make sense to respondents and help them to address the different aspects of the consultation topic, they also need to generate data that is ultimately useful to decision makers. For a consultation on a topic as underexplored as mitochondria replacement, it’s extremely difficult to foresee what issues will be important to respondents. Essentially there is a catch-22 scenario at play: the consultation questions need to be informed by public opinion, while some form of research or consultation is needed to establish public opinion first. This paradox was acknowledged by the HFEA, and led them to propose a consultation process involving a number of stages. Well before the public consultation began, OPM and Dialogue by Design ran a number of public dialogue events (in Cardiff, London and Newcastle), with the purpose of exploring the public’s views on mitochondria replacement and their responses to specific issues that might affect their opinions. The outputs of these deliberative dialogue events were valuable to decision makers in their own right, but also helped DbyD to establish the important questions for the public consultation.

Once the issues for consultation have been established, the next stage is deciding on the structure and layout of the questionnaire. Again, this process is far more important than it may seem. When a contentious proposal is put out to consultation it tends to attract responses from people with strong opinions on the subject, who are very keen to make a particular statement. This can be to address a specific aspect of the proposal, or to record an overall statement of support or opposition. To enable these respondents to do this, the consultation questionnaire started with a very open question about how people felt about mitochondria replacement. This opening question allowed respondents to immediately address the issues most pressing to them before (in some cases) engaging with the more specific questions around the subject. Designing a successful consultation questionnaire involves balancing potential respondents’ needs with those of the analysts and the decision makers, and something as seemingly basic as having the right structure and layout of questions can prove vital in getting to the heart of public opinion.

One great advantage of consulting online is the ability to signpost respondents to information they may want to consider when responding to the consultation. In the HFEA consultation, each question was hyperlinked to a section of the HFEA project website which contained accessible information relevant to the topic. A panel of experts was consulted to ensure that the information provided was balanced and accurate. On all consultations, but particularly those focused on more ‘technical’ issues, it is vital to make sure that respondents have access to relevant and unbiased information, in this case both on the science of the techniques and the ethical considerations around their application. The design of the HFEA consultation anticipated the needs of respondents and allowed people to access the information they needed to give well-informed responses.

Although the consultation encouraged respondents to use the online questionnaire, and most respondents did respond online, alternative ways of responding were also available. On request DbyD provided paper response forms to respondents who did not have access to the Internet, or who preferred to respond in other ways. Email and letter responses were also accepted. Although online consultation is arguably the most efficient way of consulting, it is vital for the integrity and inclusiveness of the process that anyone can respond in a way they are comfortable with. Maximising access is crucial in ensuring that views from different groups in society are heard.

Planning and designing this kind of consultation involves continual problem-solving, anticipating road-blocks and navigating around them to get the most accurate, in-depth and broad results possible. It’s a challenging journey, but it is through this process of problem-solving that public engagement techniques continue to develop, and to become ever more nuanced and finely honed.