[This article was originally published in the On Think Tanks 2018 Annual Review. ]
Public engagement commonly focuses on consultation and awareness activities. By explaining and discussing findings, researchers seek to enhance the application, benefits and relevance of their work. However, increased visibility and significance do not necessarily lead to better research quality and greater impact. In order to achieve full transparency, accountability, responsiveness and innovation, the public needs to be involved at all stages of research.
At first sight, a broad paradigm of public engagement might seem inadequate and difficult to implement: engaging ‘nonspecialists’ in the design of my research questions? Collecting evidence and formulating policy recommendations together with members of the public? Risking time, quality and reliability of my work due to others with no active knowledge on my topic? As a consequence of these perceived risks, many researchers default to a concept of public engagement as dissemination. But collective approaches are often underestimated: they will not only provide you with fresh and needs-based insights, but also with more comprehensive and innovative results. The main question is thus not why, but how to engage the public in research design and conduct.
Going beyond dissemination
There are various ways in which the public can be involved in the framing, conducting and dissemination of research. foraus – the Swiss think tank on foreign policy – has been experimenting and working for almost ten years with different models of comprehensive public engagement. Based on our vision, experience and resources, we have developed a crowdsourcing methodology and tool called Policy Kitchen. Policy Kitchen enables a diverse network of global thinkers to generate high-quality recommendations on foreign policy issues for decision-makers and the public. The methodology is built on an online platform, a series of workshops in different geographic locations, and a support process bringing the best ideas to policy impact.
How does this work?
Policy Kitchen generates ‘policy recipes’ in six steps:
- Framing (preparation): Our engaged voluntary network of graduates and young professionals identifies pressing foreign policy issues. Together with representatives of various sectors (science, government, international organisations, non-profit organisations and businesses), the issues are turned into concrete research questions, so-called challenges.
- Brainstorming (chopping): Possible solutions to these challenges are then collected through in-person workshops and online engagement, by a mixed crowd of researchers, experts from our Open Think Tank Network and interested members of the wider public.
- Refinement (mixing): Over several weeks, new inputs are incorporated and author teams are consolidated.
- Selection (frying): In the next phase, the most qualified and promising ideas are selected. The online-participants make a pre-selection, followed by a high-level jury comprising scientists, national politicians and practitioners.
- Development (simmering): The authors of the winning ideas are coached and supported over several months by our research community to develop their ideas into research papers with policy recommendations, so-called ‘policy recipes.’
- Impact (serving): Once reviewed by two external and two internal academics, the policy recipes are served together with the authors to decision-makers and the public.
Policy Kitchen’s goal is to engage the public throughout the whole research cycle. In doing so, the role of the public is not limited to commenting on research findings. On the contrary, members of the public are empowered as experts and authors in their own right. Any person, irrespective of background or location, can contribute with ideas, data, questions and knowledge. In return, foraus’ research projects gain innovation, trust, relevance, legitimacy and dissemination all at once.
Increasing strategic importance
Policy Kitchen was successfully launched in September 2018. The first results are encouraging: our methodology has caught the attention of academia and foreign policy professionals. A mixed crowd of experts and the broader public are participating in finding solutions for different challenges relating to biodiversity, artificial intelligence and China. Last but not least, our set of tailor-made instruments with monitoring mechanisms, trainings, panels of experts and rigorous reviews has ensured high quality engagement at all time.
In times of unprecedented global challenges, collaborating across borders and disciplines has become a necessity. And cooperative and inclusive approaches are key for problem-solving. Going beyond dissemination in public engagement is inevitable, and thanks to open source software such as Policy Kitchen, it is now possible in a scientific and trustworthy manner.