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Public engagement to build trust: false hopes?

Judith Petts

Journal of Risk Research, 2008, vol. 11, issue 6, 821-835

Abstract: Public engagement through deliberative processes is promoted in both academic and policy circles as a potential means to build public trust in risk decisions and decision-makers. Governments in particular seem to optimistically take a positive relationship between public engagement and trust almost for granted. This paper provides a new and critical analysis of this hoped-for relationship, questioning whether such a direct and positive link between engagement and trust is a false hope. The paper draws upon personal experience of deliberative processes to discuss key components of an engagement process that have the potential to impact positively on trust. Specifically, who is engaged and which interests are represented; an open and collaborative framing of the discussion, and a direct and clear relationship between engagement and the risk decision. But the paper argues that given the complexities of optimising these process elements and in the light of the known underlying dimensions of trust, expectations are misplaced and that enduring trust is unlikely to spring from engagement itself. This is not to negate the other benefits of engagement, rather it is to focus on those key elements that will need to be in place, both process and beyond, if trust is to be enhanced.

Date: 2008
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