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Open Access The hidden assumptions in public engagement: A case study of engaging on ethics in government data analysis

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This study examines the hidden assumptions around running public-engagement exercises in government. We study an example of public engagement on the ethics of combining and analysing data in national government – often called data science ethics. We study hidden assumptions, drawing on hidden curriculum theories in education research, as it allows us to identify conscious and unconscious underlying processes related to conducting public engagement that may impact results. Through participation in the 2016 Public Dialogue for Data Science Ethics in the UK, four key themes were identified that exposed underlying publicengagement norms. First, that organizers had constructed a strong imagined public as neither overly critical nor supportive, which they used to find and engage participants. Second, that official aims of the engagement, such as including publics in developing ethical data regulations, were overshadowed by underlying meta-objectives, such as counteracting public fears. Third, that advisory group members, organizers and publics understood the term 'engagement' in varying ways, from creating interest to public inclusion. And finally, that stakeholder interests, particularly government hopes for a positive report, influenced what was written in the final report. Reflection on these underlying mechanisms, such as the development of meta-objectives that seek to benefit government and technical stakeholders rather than publics, suggests that the practice of public engagement can, in fact, shut down opportunities for meaningful public dialogue.

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Keywords: BIG DATA; DATA SCIENCE; ETHNOGRAPHY; PARTICIPATION IN SCIENCE POLICY; PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT; PUBLIC PARTICIPATION

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: September 1, 2019

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  • Research for All is now published by UCL Press. New issues and all the back content shown here are available through ScienceOpen and accessed from the journal's page at UCL Press

    Research for All is a peer-reviewed journal focusing on research that involves universities and communities, services or industries working together. Contributors and readers are from both inside and outside of higher education. They include researchers, policymakers, managers, practitioners, community-based organizations, schools, businesses and the intermediaries who bring these people together. The journal highlights the potential in active public engagement for robust academic study, for the development of involved communities, and for the impact of research. It explores engagement with different groups and their cultures, and features theoretical and empirical analysis alongside authoritative commentary to explore a range of themes that are key to engaged research including the development of reciprocal relationships, sector-specific communication and participatory action research. The journal is co-sponsored by the UCL Institute of Education and the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement.

    Research for All is supporting the 16th International conference for Public Communication of Science and Technology being held in Aberdeen, Scotland, UK, 26–28 May 2020. Authors of contributions presented at the conference are invited subsequently to submit papers to Research for All for a special feature on Public Communication of Science and Technology.

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