How UKERC’s Public Engagement Observatory is making a difference to policy and practice 

02 Nov 2023
How UKERC’s Public Engagement Observatory is making a difference to policy and practice 

UKERC’s Public Engagement Observatory maps the many different ways people are engaging with energy, climate change and net zero on an ongoing basis. It openly shares and invites contributions to its interactive dataset of near to 500 cases of public engagement, which was added to in our most recent national mapping.  

In addition to being used more widely in this way, the Observatory is putting its mappings into practice in collaboration with partner organisations. These collaborative experiments explore what difference novel approaches to mapping public engagement can make to policy-making, innovations, and in shaping new forms of participation. In what follows we provide an update on these collaborative experiments and how the Observatory’s underpinning approaches are being taken up by others in the UK and internationally. 

Enhancing new forms of public engagement  

We have explored how the Observatory’s mappings can help shape new forms of participation like citizens’ assemblies on energy and climate change. Working in collaboration with the Climate Citizens project at Lancaster University, the Climate Change Committee, and Shared Future, we have explored what difference the Observatory’s approach and mappings of participation can make to the design, practice and evaluation of a citizens’ panel. The Citizens’ Panel on Home Energy Decarbonisation was held between April and June 2022, involving 24 individuals from across the broader Birmingham area.  

The experiment demonstrated that the Observatory approach and mapping evidence can play important roles in shaping, enhancing, and situating new forms of participation. An Observatory mapping of public engagement with home energy decarbonisation prompted the organisers to openly reflect on the partialities and exclusions of the citizens’ panel and how it was situated within a wider landscape of participation. This led to a new way of publicising and reporting on deliberative processes, as well as novel transformations in citizens’ panel process design, in the selection of expert speakers, and in evaluation, which would not have happened otherwise. 

Shaping responsible innovation of low carbon technologies 

In another experiment, the Observatory’s work has shaped the responsible innovation of new hydrogen technologies in wastewater management. Members of the Observatory team have partnered with the water company Anglian Water and other consortium members of an OFWAT funded Triple Carbon Reduction project. The project is trialling new hydrogen technologies in waste-water management, which have the potential to reduce harmful gas emissions from water treatment and generate energy from hydrogen to be used in transport.  

In this collaboration experiment we have undertaken one of the first mappings of public engagement with hydrogen technologies and wastewater management. This has informed the recruitment and design of a citizens’ forum exploring publics views on the new technologies being piloted in the project. Throughout, we have explored the differences and opportunities of this approach compared to traditional modes of public engagement or consultation work. A key part of this experiment has been to explore how the new low carbon technology and the experts involved in the pilot can become more responsive to the societal concerns identified in the mapping and citizen’s forum, as well as provide recommendations for future public engagement practice.  

Informing government policies and engagement strategies for net zero 

Another area of experimentation explores how the Observatory might also contribute to government policy-making and engagement strategies for net zero, energy and climate change. In 2020 we began working with the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy to explore how the Observatory’s approach and mapping methods could support climate policy-making in the Netherlands. The Ministry commissioned TNO Research with support from the Observatory team to undertake a mapping of public engagement with climate change in the country. This application of the Observatory’s comparative case mapping approach changed how public engagement was viewed, has introduced new practices of public participation, and offers new ways for Dutch public views to be recognised in national policy processes. 

We are building on this work as part of a longer-term collaboration with the UK government Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (formerly BEIS) to explore how our mapping participation approach can contribute to policy-making and engagement strategies for net zero. This is being achieved through a series of interactive workshops and associated activities involving DESNZ colleagues and members of the Observatory team. The collaboration and impacts are ongoing, but this application of our UKERC comparative case mapping approach is already changing how public participation is viewed and perceived by representatives in DESZN, with emerging evidence of institutional learning and capacity building about systemic approaches to participation and diverse forms of public engagement.  

Wider applications  

The Public Engagement Observatory has been carefully designed with impact and engagement at its heart. As the Observatory has become established through the current phase of UKERC we have been pleased to see its approach and methods being taken up by others, including beyond the domains of energy and climate change.  

A key example of this is a partnership we have formed with Natural England (the UK government’s adviser for the natural environment in England) since 2021 to translate the underpinning approach and methods of the Observatory into the organisation. This has led to a series of collaborative projects to map public engagement with nature and form a Public Engagement Laboratory within Natural England. The Observatory’s approaches have also been applied in projects as diverse as public engagement with the use of algorithms in public services, a global mapping of citizen science for disaster risk reduction, food waste management in Singapore, a Defra review of public engagement, and an energy communication toolkit, to name but a few examples.  

We will be reporting more on the findings of the Observatory’s collaboration experiments over the coming months, starting with a report and webinar on the citizens’ panel experiment. To find out more about the Public Engagement Observatory or get involved with our work, browse through our website and follow us on X (formerly Twitter) and Linkedin.