First, an apology. I am going to try to make some serious points here and it may make you groan. Taking all the fun away. Sorry about that.
Second, a confession. I LOVE Boaty McBoatface.
Let's take this from the top. What were NERC's engagement aims? My guess is that the main aim was to 'transmit' the message that NERC does amazing research in the polar regions and that they are getting a new boat. The #NameOurShip campaign has certainly done that. Perhaps they had a secondary 'receive' aim - gathering contact details for people who are interested, or gathering a long-list of names. Since the decision-making power for the actual name does not rest with the public (NERC's press release today says: "NERC will now review all of the suggested names and the final decision for the name will be announced in due course"), the 'collaborate' aim is confined to expressing a preference about the names.
And what's up for grabs? Their rather lovely public website doesn't seem to have a page about the 'rules', so I'm guessing here. Fixed: there will be a boat, it will have a name, NERC will decide the name. Presumably there are some criteria, explicit or implicit. I couldn't find these. I'm guessing there will be some kind of criterion to do with appropriateness, relevance or gravitas which will mean that sadly, RSS Boaty McBoatface will not be painted on the side of this noble vessel. Open: the public can suggest names and express preferences about the names suggested by others. Negotiable: Hmm, nothing really.
So, what went wrong? You might argue, nothing at all - thousands of names were submitted and many more preferences expressed. NERC now has a global audience of people keen to hear the announcement and with some interest in the ship and its work.
This is an engagement process leading to a decision with very low jeopardy. Very few people will be impacted 'highly' by the decision. If the decision were of a different kind - whether or not to change the flood defences in a particular area, for example, or site a geological disposal facility for radioactive waste - then being confused about who is taking which decisions and what their criteria are could lead to anger and conflict.
In my experience, people haven't often reflected on the subtleties of the difference between consultation and shared decision-making, and can assume that a 'voting' mechanism is always a decision-making mechanism. Thinking you are deciding, and then realising you're just being canvassed, can lead to grumpiness. Client teams also sometimes need help coming to a shared view about what the decision-making points are, and who decides, when they put together their engagement plan.
Which is why it's a good idea to be very clear about the process aspects of your engagement:
- What are your engagement aims?
- What's up for grabs?
- Who the stakeholders are, their level of influence and the level of impact the decision will have on them.
- Who is taking which decisions, and on the basis of what criteria?
It's a shame that NERC's process isn't really devolved decision-making. I'd love to see cutting edge science done from the deck of RSS Boaty McBoatface. Perhaps the ship's cat can blog with the pen name Boaty McBoatface. I'd read that.
[6th May 2016]
NERC has announced that it will call the ship the RSS Sir David Attenborough. A great name: Sir David is a bona fide national treasure, and has taught successive generations about the wonder, diversity and jaw-dropping bonkersness of life of this astonishing planet of ours. But still people, including the BBC, are describing the public engagement as a 'vote' (implying decision-making has been devolved) rather than a long-listing or a canvassing of support. And the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, which is looking into science communication, are likely to question Professor Duncan Wingham about the initiative.
They didn't take up my suggestion of the ship's cat: they've gone for the even better choice of naming an undersea remote yellow submarine Boaty McBoatface . Which I think is a great way to acknowledge the public's input and maintain the interest.