Policy experts as conversation starters
Our findings on how people like to receive political or policy ideas opens an interesting twist on what engagement could come to mean.
This year’s research explored the formats which people engage with most, in the context of political or policy ideas. Out of the twenty formats tested – which included PDF reports, events, mainstream news, social media and infographics – the top five were perhaps unsurprising.
Mainstream news retained a place at the top table, though there was a marked difference between online and print – the latter on a downward trend, the former more stable. Documentaries were also a popular format. Most notable, however, was the prominence of peer conversation and social media. And the clear preference for social media among younger audiences foreshadowed what policy communication may look like in 5-10 years time.
The question is this: in a world where people prefer talking things through with people they trust, is there an opportunity for a rethink of what engagement means?
Rather than playing a paternalistic role of bestowing knowledge on the public, could think tanks could have more of a role as convenors? Generating ideas, framing the debate, and then orchestrating an informed public dialogue. The public wants policy experts to speak out and engage. But they need to speak in terms which will resonate with humans – public and policy makers alike – with all their foibles.
Yes, policy experts will win the intellectual argument all day long, based on their vast bank of facts and statistics. But if their facts challenge an individual’s pre-existing frames – be they policy maker or public – the facts will be dismissed almost every time.
This tension lies at the heart of the frustration which is driving populism – a gut-feel that the facts and statistics are not reflecting people’s own lived experience.
If Watford is anything to go by, the human experience needs to have a voice.