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.