I was struck by a blog I read recently asking, ‘Am I not a people?’
The (very interesting) blog was asking whether civil servants can substitute themselves for ‘real people’ in the policy making process. The answer was, no. Though of course they are ‘real’, with “family, a kitchen to clean, bills to pay, hopes and dreams of my own”, the civil servant (or other person with a specialist position) can’t forget what they already know – whether that’s the tools of their trade, the detailed policy environment or just what it feels like to be in that position.
This is important to me, because I’ve moved in the opposite direction, from being a professional in local government to now being a ‘public member’ on a board advising on grants for public health research. This is a new role and the organisers were asking me exactly what sort of role they thought I should play. So I had to ask myself, ‘what makes me different?’ ‘How can I represent the whole of the general public?’ After all, I’m not sure I’m any more ‘ordinary’ than any of the other members of the board (even if they are mostly professors). I don’t watch football, drink beer, do DIY or tend the garden (so not very blokish I’m afraid). On the other hand, I’m a parent, swim, run, drink most other sorts of alcohol and enjoy films. But I’m sure the items on both those lists and many more could be ticked by the other members of the Board. Whatever my personal characteristics, it is impossible for one person to be representative of the diverse morass of the general public with their variety of mutually exclusive characteristics.
The blog referred to above suggests that one way in which public involvement can produce a different result from the informed and empathetic specialist, is through the interrelationship of many different people: “the alchemy of lots of people together”. That’s not something I can replicate as an individual board member, but the research applications do (or should) include a substantial amount of public involvement in both design and delivery, so hopefully they should benefit from such alchemy.
So, can I have a distinctive role? My conclusion was that what makes me different is that I’m not a specialist academic researcher. There’s no guarantee that I will have a different perspective, and no way that I can be ‘representative’ of the public as a whole, but I don’t have the ‘baggage’ which comes from a career which involves wining grants, getting things published and living within an academic bureaucracy. My contribution will be as idiosyncratic as my particular life history and experience and it will make use of my aptitudes and skills (such as, I believe, a philosophical bent). I can make a particular effort to take a different perspective and to draw on opportunities from other parts of my life where I hear a wide variety of public views.
So, I may not be ‘a people’ any more than the other board members, but I do think I can make a different and worthwhile contribution. It is a fascinating role, and one which I’m really looking forward to getting involved with in more depth.
Postscript – They are currently advertising for a second public board member, so if you are interested, or know anyone else who might be, there are more details here. N.B. you can be 'a people' even if you are a local government officer, but Directors of Public Health are a bit too close to the topic so wouldn't be appropriate.
(N.B. this post also appears at: http://www.equwell.org.uk/?p=135)