Long live the deficit model of public engagement!

I’m obviously being rather toungue-in-cheek here, but I’ve come to the conclusion that the ‘deficit model’ of public engagement has a lot going for it and it shouldn’t be quite so sneered at.

Whilst professional public engagement people say they don’t support the idea of a heirarchy of engagement where communications is at the bottom and collaboration/co-creation is at the top, I think many of them sort of do in reality. ‘Selling’ your technology or product is often seen as rather crass.

The deficit model as I understand it is generally seen as the view that ‘if we only communicate with people better they they would understand and accept our technology’. But actually I think that may pretty well be true. It may also be better and more useful to listen and co-create as well, but how governments, scientists and companies communicate what they do, how they do it and the benefit of their work may be the most important of the lot.

This is not to say bog standard PR puff is the right approach, but a sophisticated, innovative approach to communications and transparency will go a long way to building the confidence of the public in a certain product or technology. You may say, well it didn’t work in the past with GM and others. But actually no-one communicated much about GM before it was too late anyway, so it is hard to tell if it would have worked at all.

So let’s not diss the deficit model as if it has been tried and failed or is somehow unworthy. I don’t think it has actually been tried, or certainly not effectively. The thinking behind communicating more effectively to persuade people to accept a technology is a perfectly legitimate rationale, particularly where public money or shareholder money (probably including your pension) has been spent on the development of a product or a technology which aims to bring a benefit to people or the environment.

We are currently finalising a review of what the public wants companies in particular to communicate about their use of new technologies. They aren’t that bothered about participating in dialogues on the whole, but really want useful information they can understand about products available to them now and someone clever and independent to be on the case about health and safety and regulation. But more of that later in the week.

8 Responses to “Long live the deficit model of public engagement!”

  1. Hi Hilary,

    I think there may be a gap (a deficit even ;-) ) between what you describe and a more formal understanding of the deficit model. In crude terms, this tends to consider there to be a “proper” response to a situation that all right-minded people would naturally arrive at, if only they had all the necessary information. We now know of course that decisions are made on more than just information, and that what is considered “proper” is often questionable.

    But that doesn’t mean that we throw information out with the bathwater. It still has a fundamental role to play in understanding options and deciding on courses of action, which it seems is what you are beginning to dig into here.

  2. Hilary says:

    Of course you are right Andrew! This was a bit of a knee jerk response to a conversation in which I got a serious and sneery response to my suggestion on the importance of communication with ‘oh very deficit model’!

    Thanks very much for taking the time to put me right!

  3. Brigitte says:

    However, it seems to me that the shadow of the deficit model sometimes hangs over everything that is only slightly couched as providing information, which can be rather damaging…
    But this makes my point (if that is my point) somewhat better:
    http://www.scidev.net/en/editorials/the-case-for-a-deficit-model-of-science-communic.html

  4. Hilary says:

    Thanks Brigitte, that is really a brilliant and thoughtful article. Of course that’s what I meant to say!!!

  5. Steven Hill says:

    I have some sympathy with what you say and definitely agree that there is a place for effective communication about science and technology, both in general and as a prerequisite for more-two way engagement. I would also suggest that there may be a ‘deficit’ in the understanding that scientists and technologists have about the public, their views and their priorities, and maybe we need to fill that gap too.

    However, I thought there was quite good evidence that when people who are sceptical about a new technology are provided with more information they tend to become more sceptical not less. So even if your objective it to promote a new technology the provision of information alone doesn’t work.

  6. Hilary says:

    Thanks Steven, yes I am aware of that evidence, though can’t put my hand to it just at the moment after a very quick look, interested if anyone has it to hand.

    However I am also very very sceptical of some of the types of studies which ask a number of people x and then add information, or look at communication about an ‘ology’. etc which was one of those I saw. These do not paint a picture of how people really act in the real world. You only have to look at our acceptance of lots of different technologies in products to see that, information plays only a part in that.

    Even if it is true, it is also fundamentally not a reason not to communicate, which of course I know you believe too.

    But again, this is not what I am meaning. I am meaning across the board communication about the products that a technology enables, not the ology itself or the scientists talking about the theories.

    I think there is a difference between the sort of thing which happens when people are doing ‘effective communication about science and tech’ which is mainly done in universities and about ologies with money from you guys and communication about how the technologies are used, the systems and processes that companies in particular have in place to ensure safety.

    If these happen as a matter of course, then (a) we will all understand it a bit more and (b) we will all be able to make a choice either way. My hunch is that, like all uses of technologies, some will like it others won’t. Just like some use high tec L’Oreal products (the biggest company in the cosmetics world I think) and others want Lush or Body Shop organic products.

    Will be posting our thoughts on this any minute!

  7. Bruce says:

    I think there is a distinction to be made between one-way communications and ‘deficit’ model communications, and I also think that one-way communications has become tarred with the ‘deficit’ but that the methods have a useful place in comms and engagement.

    My view of the deficit model is that it implies an attitude of ‘superiority’ on the side of the communicator and is often characterised by the position “if they only knew more about X then they will see that my view is right”

    This attitude can be applied to any form of engagement or communication method, just because some is using, for example, a dialogue process does not mean that they are achieving dialogue.

    One way communications can be non-deficit, especially where it is around issues of openness and transparency. We are telling you about Y just so you know we are not hiding anything. As Steven pointed out, this is generally as a prelude to a two way, or multiway, discussion.

  8. Hilary says:

    Ah yes,you are right, the superiority bit is the difference and I agree that attitude can permeate other sorts of engagement and communication.

    However I was also trying to get at the angle that it is surely fine for a company or a government to seek to persuade us that a certain technology, research strand or product is ‘right’, particularly if our money is being spent and we have evidence to support it, despite a mass opinion that this is incorrect. Eg MMR. Are we then talking about simply not doing your communications very effectively and being a little more thoughtful, less strident, smug or more sophisticated about how you try to persuade or explain to people?

    I’m not making myself incredibly clear here, but I’m trying to get at the fact that you can perhaps even have a deficit model mentality and do appropriate and effective communications which is valuable giving people quality information.

    Also I think there is something different going on when we talk about the communications of companies as opposed to that from government funded research bodies which I think is the context in which the deficit model is usually discussed.

    That noise is the sound of my brain exploding whilst trying to think what I really mean!

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