Deliberative public dialogue is increasingly accepted and valued as an important component of policy and decision-making, but it largely remains a niche activity among some public bodies. Rather than asking the question “are there any reasons we should not engage in public dialogue on this issue?” many policy and decisionmakers often fail to ask whether it should be used at all. From a risk perspective people often appear unaware of the potential costs of not including a public dialogue, or doing it badly.
Part of the reason for not including public dialogue as part of the policy making toolkit is because formally measuring the value of public dialogue is fraught with difficulty. While it can give deep insights, from people and perspectives not generally accessed by traditional consultations and stakeholder engagement, the evidence that emerges is primarily qualitative. It is challenging to assess the significance of the insights obtained and to weigh them alongside other forms of evidence.
Quantitative evidence, especially if it can also be monetised, has long carried a higher status in policy and decision-making circles, particularly in cost-benefit analyses . However, the limitations of quantitative data are rarely highlighted and considered.
This paper has a different focus. We look at the question of ‘valuing dialogue’ from two perspectives. The first is the cost of not doing dialogue. We describe a series of case studies which demonstrate the dangers and costs of failure to engage properly. Damaging outcomes, such as judicial reviews, social protests and U-turns or costly revisions that might have been avoided are outlined. The second part of this paper looks at the challenge of assessing the value of activities that are not monetisable, and often unquantifiable, and the impact this has on the perceived validity of public dialogue for policy making. This is tied up with the question of assessing the social impact of policies and decisions, and it raises this wider issue with which assessment of the value of public dialogue is caught up.