Citizen Science and Well-being

17 June 2021


Citizen Science and Wellbeing

Reported by Anna Kliampa, CSaP Policy Intern

As part of CSaP’s ongoing seminar series on citizen science, Dr Mark Fabian, welfare economist and Research Associate at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy, spoke to CSaP Policy Fellows to share his insights on the benefits of participative approaches in developing and measuring well-being policies. Dr Fabian’s work utilizes a co-production-based model to inform a theory and measures of thriving for the national poverty charity Turn2Us. Drawing from this case study, Dr Fabian shared some preliminary findings on indicators of well-being that can be used in policy making and other organizations in their work, while stressing the dynamic, value-laden and democratic results that co-production can yield in the implementation of social welfare in comparison to consultancy in public policy.

Thick Concepts and Social Policy:

Dr Fabian’s emphasized the need to be mindful of the ethical dimensions of studying well-being and noted the difficulty in working with “thick concepts” such as wellbeing.

A thick concept is a concept that both describes and evaluates. It is difficult, if not undesirable, to strip these concepts off any kind of evaluation, as treating a concept that is value-laden as though it were purely technical can lead to disregard people’s lived experiences. It also presents the associated science as value free, which can be misleading when that science has the power to shape realities, notably through policy applications.

Considering these theoretical challenges, Dr Fabian presented three possible pathways to deal with thick concepts in social science. The first way is to redefine the concept by treating it as a technical term, the second way is to take full responsibility for any necessary value judgements, and the third way is to make the value judgements in a way that it is politically legitimate. Dr Fabian’s team have chosen to work with the third option in their research, which automatically raises the question of “what is legitimate?”. Here, Dr Fabian employed a co-production model “to coproduce measures for example of well-being by balancing three kinds of expertise”. These are lived experts, people that will be directly affected by the policies; professional experts, practitioners that have the technical and practical knowledge of how to apply a concept in their domain; and academics, people that provide statistical, logical, and technical knowledge. Through cooperation between these different kinds of experts and their co-production of concepts, Dr Fabian suggested that there can be a greater degree of legitimacy in social science, especially as it applies to public policy.

Turn2Us: A Case Study on ‘Thriving’

Turn2Us is a digital charity which provides support to marginalised people through consultancy, donations, and other services, as for example through the benefits calculator, where someone can access information on benefits that they are eligible for. Dr Fabian’s team has worked with this organization and people in financial hardship to co-produce what thriving means for them. This work has involved surveys, working groups, and interviews with relevant stakeholders and those with lived experiences of financial hardship. In conducting this research and interpreting their findings, Dr Fabian’s team has used a tree metaphor to help them depict and classify enablers of thriving. They have used the roots of the tree to symbolize the means to thrive, which basically refer to the material realm, income-health-housing, etc. Soil quality is the societal factors that allow someone to thrive, like the justice system. The leaves depict the outcomes that indicate if you are thriving and they include a sense of competence, autonomy, meaning, purpose, and connections with other people and community.

Several key themes have emerged from this work, highlighting the importance of freedom and autonomy; having basic needs met; and overcoming cultural barriers to find authentic values and good relationships with family, friends, and the community in our understanding of ‘thriving’. Access and provision of help to find support and avoiding marginalisation and oppression were also important factors. An unexpected emphasis was also given to feeling of purpose and contribution to society in contrast to the more common emphasis on pleasure and life satisfaction.

The Role of Measurement in Wellbeing Policy:

Concerning the role of measurement and modes of accountability for well-being policies, Dr Fabian noted that although academic theories have done well in describing well-being for users of Turn2us, this is not the case for wellbeing measures. There are many reasons why this is the case, with Dr Fabian noting amongst them the lack of sensitivity of existing quantitative questions, time constraints facing Turn2us’ service users, and the variation of data needed across different branches of Turn2us.

The generalisability of this type of research findings is also another area of concern for the researchers and the research’s prospective public policy recipients for implementation. However, Dr Fabian was optimistic that their methodology could be replicated and that at a first stage can be used in different organizations and charities that deal with homeless, poverty, drug abuse and other forms of marginalisation. When these organisations come up with their own theories of thriving, they can have another round of co-production at a higher scale and provide a more abstract theory from there and apply that to a whole sector and then perhaps to a wider field of social policy. This way, Mark maintained, they can build thriving theories and measurements which come from a grassroots origin and thus are being legitimised from the ground up.

Citizen Science, Coproduction, and Wellbeing Policy:

The discussion that followed Dr Fabian’s presentation set the tone for future projects with the wider publics, with participants stressing the importance of power sharing when coproduction is employed and highlighting the challenges that this approach of social science faces. However, while discussion participants placed a significant emphasis on the importance of the non-expert in the direct processes of knowledge production, Dr Fabian noted that the term citizen science can be an “unwieldy” descriptor for these interactions. Instead, he highlighted the value of coproduction and deliberative democracy literatures in his research. Coproduction’s core tenant is the idea that learning is a two-way process, with both researchers and other experts growing wiser. Dr Fabian stressed the power of such methods to open the way for a power sharing model of policy making. Here, he also noted that the democratic and direct participatory characteristics of coproduction distinguish it from a rather mainstream model of technocratic policy making, where experts decide which policies are more suitable and government deliver the policies, engaging citizens only through elections. In turn, the coproduction model takes a dynamic and engaging stance towards citizen’s values and voices.

In contrast to this point, other discussion participants noted that coproduction models face great challenges when it comes to implementation. For example, power differentials and their management need careful consideration when planning for such programmes. Prioritising lived experts’ voices is an important insight in this regard, as is disposition, relevant language, and care ethics, which need further development and may be hampered by the inability to engage lived experts in co-authorship activities, due to lack of confidence and interest. Moreover, the model of co-production is arguably quite close to the civil service model, which consists of evidence, politics, and delivery. Here, some participants noted that it is worth thinking about what is within the ambit of government. In addition, this model poses the challenge of practicality and feasibility in terms of time and materials in policy making versus deep thinking, which is often time consuming. Finally, coproduction projects need to take careful consideration of potentially difficult value judgements from participants, as with for example populist views on migration. Education, awareness raising, and dialogue among relevant parties were suggested here as ways to work towards good outcomes.

Regardless of the specifics of the approach taken, all participants in this discussion emphasized the importance of good cooperation between stakeholders and the pivotal role of science in policy making. If scientific evidence and knowledge production on well-being legitimizes governmental discourse on what is good for people, it is significant for social science to try to develop legitimate well-being policies and subsequently measures of well-being that are also context sensitive and relevant. This becomes even more important when someone works with marginalised groups. Coproduction models and citizen science could make a big contribution to the future of public policy, advancing further a democratic model of government.

Organised exclusively for CSaP Policy Fellows and Continuing Fellows, this three-part seminar series on citizen science runs alongside an edited collection, produced in collaboration with the Expertise Under Pressure research project: Future directions for citizen science and public policy. This collection of essays, created by leading policy makers, practitioners, scientists and scholars, will showcase good practice and aim to set out the potential for citizens to contribute more effectively to policy making. The collection will be open access, freely available online and launched at the CSaP annual conference in June 2021.