The Naturally Speaking... public dialogue sought to better understand the public’s views on the UK National Ecosystem Assessment. 9 public dialogues took part across 3 areas of the UK with a final national dialogue in London.
Problems and Purpose
The aim of the public dialogue project was to open up the methods, analyses and findings of the UK National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA) process and its follow-on work to public scrutiny: inspecting and testing its assumptions; highlighting potential areas of public sensitivity and concern and offering public insight into the ways in which NEA thinking might help inform credible policy and practice toward the environment.
The overall business case put forward by NERC to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS)/Sciencewise proposed four thematic areas of focus for the dialogue process. These were:
- Public views on the value of NEA concepts for explaining environmental change;
- Influence of NEA science on public understandings of environmental change;
- Public assessment of the adequacy of NEA recommendations for policy makers;
- Public priorities for taking aspects of NEA science forward in policy and decision-making. 
Background History and Context
An ecosystem approach provides a framework for looking at whole ecosystems in decision-making, and valuing the ecosystem services they provide to ensure that society can maintain a healthy and resilient natural environment now and for future generations.
The 2011 UK National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA) drew together a wealth of scientific evidence on the character, causes and consequences of ecosystem change in the UK. It included an assessment of change across a broad range of habitats, covering the various ‘ecosystem services’ that underpin human well-being, including water quality, food, energy and recreation. A distinctive feature of the work was its linking together of scientific evidence with an analysis of the economic value of these services. This was designed to strengthen the ‘case for nature’ on the grounds of its contribution to long-term economic prosperity.
The NEA work belongs to a growing area of scientific advocacy for the environment that calls for a ‘system’ approach to ecosystem management, which has become increasingly normalised across the research, policy and practice community. Many of the conclusions of the 2011 NEA were reflected in the commitments of the 2011 Natural Environment White Paper (Defra, 2011). The Government committed to a further two-year NEA follow-on (NEAFO), which reported in spring 2014. The NEAFO further developed and promoted the arguments put forward by the UK NEA through:
- Refining and adding precision to the core concepts
- Developing tools that could further advance uptake of ecosystem thinking in a range of policy and decision- making contexts across the UK.
Despite this refining process, the Government knew very little about how the work reflected wider public views about the natural environment, and how it is valued and managed. Therefore, the purpose of the NEA public dialogue project was to open up the methods, analyses and findings of the NEA process to public scrutiny. 
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
Total cost of the project £335,901
The dialogue was commissioned by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), it received additional funding (£318, 301) and support from Sciencewise. The project was awarded to the University of Exeter with a start date of the 2nd of December 2013, with an end date identified as the 1st of April 2015. An inception meeting was held on the 21st of January 2014. The dialogue events with the public then took place between March 2014 and October 2014 in four locations (Glasgow, Birmingham, Exeter and London) .
Through a call to tender, the University of Exeter subcontracted Hopkins van Mil to recruit participants and provide support facilitation at the dialogue events. Hopkins van Mil subcontracted the recruitment of participants to a further company (Acumen Fieldwork) .
Following a call to tender, 3KQ were commissioned by the University of Exeter in January 2014 to undertake an evaluation of the dialogue project (total cost £24,998 plus VAT). The final evaluation plan was agreed with the University of Exeter and Sciencewise in March 2014 following a baseline assessment report.
NERC is the UK's main agency for funding and managing research, training and knowledge exchange in the environmental sciences and is the commissioning body for this project.
University of Exeter
The University of Exeter is a research-led university with a world-class reputation in the humanities and social sciences as well as in cutting-edge science, engineering, mathematics, and medicine research.
Hopkins Van Mil
Hopkins Van Mil facilitate engagement to gain insight and offer solutions for participation; public dialogue and community engagement, and is the delivery contractor for the dialogue.
3KQ are leaders in the field of facilitation and stakeholder engagement. 3KQ is the evaluator for the dialogue 
Sciencewise-ERC is a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills funded programme to bring scientists, government and the public together to explore the impact of science and technology in our lives. It helps Government departments and agencies commission and use public dialogue to inform policy making, involving science and technology issues. Its core aim is to develop the capacity of Government to carry out good dialogue, to gather and disseminate good practice, have successful two-way communications with the public and other stakeholders, and to embed the principles of good dialogue into internal Government processes.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
- Total public participants: 118
- Total stakeholders: 43
- Total experts involved in the events: 40
Over 40 specialists were involved in the workshops including NEA scientists, social scientists, representatives of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and others. Full details of specialist participation, including background and the events they attended can be found in the final report .
Participants were recruited to events with the aim of ensuring an illustrative cross-section of people in terms of age, gender, occupation, ethnicity, rural and urban backgrounds, and levels of self-reported awareness and interest in environmental issues , . Participation in the three areas across the events was as follows (note that in Exeter and Glasgow participants changed as a result of no shows and new recruits):
- Exeter: Event 1 (36), Event 2 (36), Event 3 (35)
- Birmingham: Event 1 (40), Event 2 (40), Event 3 (40)
- Glasgow: Event 1 (36), Event 2 (39), Event 3 (39)
Methods and Tools Used
Project management and governance. Two members of staff from the University of Exeter were responsible for the project and for designing the dialogue events, producing the stimulus materials, the delivery and lead facilitation of the events, analysis and reporting. They worked with an Oversight Group, which comprised a Management Group (NERC, Sciencewise and Defra), and a project advisory group (with additional stakeholders), which provided wider oversight and advice on the dialogue content, design and communications. In addition to recruitment of participants, Hopkins van Mil provided support facilitation at the events.
The workshops were in two main stages and took place in 2014 between March and September. Throughout the events, a range of stimulus materials was used including presentations, electronic polling, visual and written texts, data and maps, cartoons and animations. 
Stage 1: Regional Dialogue Events
This stage involved three one-day regional dialogue events in Birmingham, Exeter and Glasgow (9 in total), at which participants and specialists covered three key areas of dialogue. Although the process design was consistent, the dialogue stimuli varied to reflect the regional specificity of each event. Participants were divided into four socio-demographically diverse groups of up to 10 people.
Stage 2: National Event
The second stage involved a national dialogue event in London over one and a half days. This involved a sub-sample of 33 participants (13 from Birmingham, 10 from Exeter and 10 from Glasgow). It addressed two issues: 1) whether, and in what contexts, valuation provides an acceptable basis for making decisions about the natural environment, and 2) assigning roles and responsibilities in managing the natural environment.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Dialogue round 1: Exploring our changing ecosystems
The first round introduced participants to the concepts and framework of ecosystem services, and the work of the NEA. The process involved eliciting participant reactions to images depicting local examples of NEA broad habitats and asking them to speculate on what these environments might do for individuals and communities. The process was designed to allow participants to discover the concept of ecosystem services on their own terms. Over the course of the event participants were then introduced to the NEA and probed on how the concept of ecosystem services resonated with their own views of the natural world. Participants then applied the framework to a hypothetical catchment system where a number of decision issues and management options had to be addressed: producing more food from land and sea; cleaning up water; and building more homes.
Dialogue Round 2: Managing our ecosystems
The second round of events moved from the conceptual and general to the practical and specific. It used real world case studies to evaluate how the ecosystem services framework has been applied, or is planned to be applied, in particular arenas of ecosystem management. Examples were chosen that were relevant to locality, specific case studies are outlined below.
The Exeter dialogue addressed the following case study projects:
- Upstream thinking
- Marine Spatial Planning
- Northern Devon Nature Improvement Area (NIA)
- Spatial/Local planning
The Birmingham dialogue addressed the following case study projects:
- Green/blue infrastructure
- Catchment- based approach (Fowley Brook)
- Marine Spatial Planning
The Glasgow dialogue addressed the following case study projects:
- Seven Lochs Wetland Park
- Glazert Pilot Catchment Project
- Carse of Stirling Pilot (Land use strategy)
- Firth of Clyde Ecosystems Project
Dialogue Round 3: Shaping the future- the challenge for decision makers
The third dialogue event focused on strategic and long term concerns. It introduced participants to future scenarios developed by the NEA with discussion specifically exploring public impressions of four of the NEA futures: Green and Pleasant Land; World Markets; ‘Nature@work’; and National Security. Participants were asked to consider these scenarios on the grounds of probability and preferability. Participants were asked to think about their preferred vision for the future (2060) and to consider how this vision could be achieved using the NEA’s framework of foundational, instrumental and enabling responses.
Stage 2- National Dialogue Event
Dialogue Round 4 - Valuing our natural environment The dialogue used practical valuation examples to explore whether and how public assessments and perceptions of ‘good’ decision making about the natural environment are: reinforced, challenged or transformed by different approaches to the valuation of natural environment and ecosystem services; require the use of particular types and mixes of valuation analyses; or rely on approaches to decision making that are contrary or counterpointed to the valuation approaches. In pursuing these concerns the dialogue considered: how views on valuation vary according to the scales of decision making (e.g. national and local decisions); who creates and owns valuation evidence (e.g. government, business or researchers); the focus of valuation (e.g. how views may vary according to different ecosystem services or habitat types); and ethical considerations (e.g. rights of nature).
Dialogue Round 5 – Assigning roles and responsibilities
Again, drawing on practical examples the dialogue explored in what ways, and to what extent, implementing the Ecosystem Approach in local contexts should promote and enable the development of market-based mechanisms to reward and finance sustainable behaviours and practices. It also explored how government and wider civil society actors might assume particular roles and responsibilities in relation to these potential developments. Understanding how reasoning varies according to context was important in this dialogue, such as variation according to the type of market-based mechanism, the scale of management, and problem focus. 
Key messages from the public emerging from the dialogues:
- A fundamental and unambiguous connection was drawn between the natural environment and the well-being of people.
- The work of the National Ecosystem Assessment was viewed as providing an authoritative, though quickly dating, body of evidence.
- The concept and framework of ecosystem services advanced by the NEA was viewed in a cautiously positive or constructively critical way by participants. They were supportive of its holistic ambitions, but a significant minority were skeptical about advancing use of the term ‘services’. They felt it was consumerist in outlook and expressed concern that people would end up paying for things they have the right to access and use freely.
- Many of the characteristics that participants associated with good decision-making about the natural environment were consistent with the principles of the Ecosystem Approach.
- State and third-sector actors were considered to play a central role in governing and delivering ecosystem services. Participants were generally suspicious about the interests and involvement of business in dictating and delivering priorities for the natural environment.
- Valuation techniques were considered helpful within policy and decision-making processes, although participants queried how valuation evidence is created, what it signifies and what it can be expected to do.
- The dialogue saw many virtues and challenges in the use of ‘Payments for Ecosystem Service’ schemes (PES) at the local level. 
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
This dialogue project was unusual in that there was no specific policy decision that the results were expected to inform. The value of this project was in the potential of the results to be drawn on in relation to a range of different policy agendas.
Representatives from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) stated that the results of the project would feed directly into different policy initiatives and the report was all the more powerful by not offering specific recommendations. Instead, it allowed space for them to identify where they could draw on the lessons and evidence in relation to different policy agendas.
Two other specific impacts of the project have been reported by other stakeholders:
1) Birmingham City Council involved some of the participants from the Birmingham public workshops to act as a sounding board for the development of the community-level Natural Capital Planning tool (which gained an Award of Excellence in 2015 by the UNESCO Man and Biosphere Urban Forum). This tool aims to embed an ecosystem approach into future planning and development in the city and, potentially, as a future national standard. It was initially tested on live planning sites across the Midlands with a wide range of partners
2) Natural Resources Wales (NRW) reported that the dialogue had informed practical work it was undertaking in three trial areas to elicit stakeholder views for informing area statements. NRW described how the method (including asking an uninformed public about perceptions) and the findings (to help with communication to a broad public) had been useful. The dialogue report also informed its knowledge gap about socio-economic evidence in relation to natural resource management and strategic monitoring, within the context of the new Environment Bill in Wales.
Other potential impacts already identified include the Clyde Forum working with the Glasgow participants in the ‘Naturally speaking’ dialogue for a trial dialogue; informing Natural England’s strategic thinking and development of its conservation strategy; informing the work of Defra’s Natural Capital Committee, its 25-year plan to restore the UK’s biodiversity and wider work within Defra’s Countryside and Nature Directorate; the use of the results by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) in linking community planning with land and water planning, and behaviour change activities; and informing NERC’s Valuing Nature programme.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The Sciencewise case study identifies the following lessons:
What worked especially well
- Exemplary project management, including keeping the Oversight Group fully engaged (and other stakeholders).
- High-quality delivery, including a strong overall dialogue process design, and design and delivery of individual events.
- Sustained dialogue over seven months, in three regions, with an illustrative cross-section of the public and strong retention throughout the process. The process also benefitted from the involvement of a wide range of specialists.
- Conclusions that were seen to be robust because of rigorous analysis based on independent transcriptions of recorded dialogue discussion, enabling the analysis to identify and report on nuanced differences in the discussion. A thorough and rich report based on robust findings. Results that covered a wide range of issues that would appeal to a broad spectrum of stakeholders at national and local level.
- Widespread targeted dissemination activities reaching a wide range of stakeholders. 
What worked less well
No immediate or specific policy decision to be taken. The dialogue was not able to influence any specific decisions, but this was seen to be the very strength of the project. The Oversight Group took the view that there was a genuine need to learn, before even starting to think about policy implications, which seemed to have opened the way for the findings to resonate across a broad range of stakeholders.
Balance of views. Initially there was no presentation of alternative viewpoints or of the limits of the NEA concepts (e.g. from specialists who contest the NEA conceptualisation and connotations of commodifying the environment). This meant it was less clear where points of conflict and divergence might be. This issue of balance was addressed by redesigning the final stage to include more critical perspectives on valuation and by ensuring that the analysis captured more divergent views when they arose in the dialogue. 
 Medd, W (2016) “Evaluation of a public dialogue on the UK National Ecosystems Assessment”, March 2016
 Sciencewise (2016) “Case Study: Naturally Speaking... A public dialogue on the UK National Ecosystem Assessment”, March 2016
 Sciencewise (2017) “Public Dialogue for the UK National Ecosystem Assessment” (ONLINE) Available at: https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20170110132607/http://www.sciencewise-erc.org.uk/cms/public-dialogue-for-the-uk-national-ecosystem-assessment/
 Fish, R and Saratsi, E (2015) “Naturally speaking... A Public Dialogue on the UK Natoinal Ecosystem Assessment: Final Report”, June 2015