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Environment Group Research Report 2005/04 - Continuing the Dialogue on Radioactive Waste Management: Engaging Young Scotland Innovatively



1. This report is of a study to assess effective ways of engaging with young people aged 14 to 21 living in Scotland in the debate on radioactive waste management ( RWM), using information and communication technologies ( ICT). The study was undertaken by the International Teledemocracy Centre at Napier University and was commissioned by the Scottish Executive Environment and Rural Affairs Department ( SEERAD). It involved a review of current research and practice, technical development of ICT tools, focus groups (or 'scenario-based workshops') to assess these with three groups of young people, and interviews with organisations experienced in involving young people in complex policy-making debates. It started on 1 st February 2004 and finished on 30 th June 2004. The results are intended to inform the Scottish Executive's radioactive waste management engagement strategies, including the Managing Radioactive Waste Safely ( MRWS) 1 Process.

2. Previous cases of online and offline engagement on RWM issues indicate that where success has been achieved, this has been despite initial lack of awareness and mistrust of information (Elrick et al 2002), or lack of interest among young people (O'Donoghue, 2000).

3. The results showed that, despite such barriers, there was interest and enthusiasm in using ICT tools when the RWM debate was embedded in the activities of organised groups, i.e. school classes or youth groups. On the other hand, we encountered very little appetite for sustained involvement in the debate by individual young people acting on their own accord.

4. The study shows the value of electronic tools for those young people with an interest in using ICT; namely that it can address their need to see information drawn from various sources and perspectives, and give them feedback on the views of their peers. Moreover, an incentive to become actively involved in the debate was provided by making it the focus for ICT use integrated with the face-to-face activities of organised groups.

5. The design and evaluation of electronic tools should give a high priority to ease-of-use and accessibility, to minimise barriers to using them. However the main barriers to young people making effective use of the tools in the RWM debate are much more likely to be the organisational ones of coordinating the provision and use of the tools and their content. It will require the active support of the education and community sectors to provide young people with realistic opportunities to use e-tools to take part in the debate.

6. RWMspecialists and decision-makers should be directly involved in the online debate. In planning the e-engagement there is also a need for non-government stakeholders to provide their input. There is a need for facilitators to lead face-to-face discussion, moderators2 to perform a similar role of supervising the online discussion, and contributors of position statements and background facts, some of whom should be willing to be interviewed for online publication of their views or experiences, and may themselves be young people.

7. In the study we developed prototypes of nine types of ICT tool shown in table 1 below, and specified how they may be integrated in a toolkit. The overall purpose is to assist and encourage young people to find out about Radioactive Waste Management, decide their own point-of-view by appreciating others, and have their say by expressing and exchanging ideas or views on the issues and options raised, the decision-making process or its outcomes.

8. It is envisaged that the toolkit will be used for each of those purposes in two contexts; facilitated e-engagement in organised groups, and self-directed e-engagement. The first refers to face-to-face interaction among groups of young people, for example in a school or youth group setting, where a teacher or group leader guides young people through the debate. The second refers to young people participating on their own accord, supported by an online moderator performing some of the roles that a facilitator would in face-to-face settings.

Table 1 ICT tools for e-engagement

Blog: A web site that looks like a diary, where messages by the author are listed chronologically. Often others can add comments, but the page is focused on the author's point of view.

Live question-answer panel: streamed video: A panel of 'experts' and others involved or affected answer questions live on video, which is 'streamed' or broadcast on a website.

Video Interviews: Similar to the above but using pre-recorded video that may be downloaded on a website or from CDROM, to help get over facts and opinions about a subject.

Live question-answer panel: chat room: Similar to the streamed video but in this case the panel are represented by the text they type into a chat 'room' that can simultaneously be seen by others online.

Game: A website with a quiz format for testing background knowledge, or decision-making game with graphic presentation of interviews with stakeholders, information, and questions on preferences for RWM options.

Discussion Board: A website showing a list of questions or topics, from which users can pick a topic and see a "thread" of messages and replies about it, and add their own.

Questionnaire/ opinion poll: A website showing a list of questions where users can pick from the options given, and send their responses.

Issue Map: An interactive screen displaying a 'map' that shows questions or issues, and the associated arguments for and against different options.

Frequently asked questions ( FAQ): A website showing a 'tree' of questions and answers that can be explored or searched to find answers that are closest to the user's questions.

9. We defined overall success criteria from the perspectives of, firstly, the end-users of the toolkit (young people aged 14-21) as ease of use; appeal or enjoyment; and satisfaction that the tool has met its purpose. Secondly, from the consulting body's perspective: -

  • Take-up by a representative cross-section of young people in Scotland.
  • Informed contributions to the debate by young people in Scotland;
  • Better appreciation of their views on managing radioactive waste.

10. The comments we received from young people who tested the prototype tools and materials identified strengths and weaknesses of each tool for the purposes and contexts we considered, as shown in Figures 1 and 2 below.

11. Factual information presented for example in Frequently Asked Questions ( FAQ) form is essential but not sufficient to communicate the relevance of RWM to young people. A storytelling approach is critically important for that purpose, which blogs and video interviews may serve by giving personalised accounts of how lives are affected by RWM issues. This also depends on individuals from stakeholder groups contributing suitable material.

Figure 1 E-engagement tools fit to purpose

Figure 1 E-engagement tools fit to purpose

Figure 2 E-engagement tools fit to context

Figure 2 E-engagement tools fit to context

12. The issue map tool is well suited for showing the arguments for and against the options available for RWM when used in facilitated e-engagement in organised group settings. The discussion board is well suited to following similar threads of online discussion when used for self-directed e-engagement, supporting the exchange of points of view.

13. The game formats are very appealing to young people, even the 'look and feel' of a game being enough to convey an element of fun. A strong gaming element is needed to keep young people engaged in debate, using 'hooks' to engage attention such as point scoring and advancement through levels. Both the game format and a questionnaire are structured approaches to obtaining responses to closed questions, i.e. a range of pre-identified options. It is also possible to embed such questions in a discussion board format. Each approach can be used, to meet differing preferences for: -

a. Questionnaires as a 'quick and easy' option;

b. Games as the 'fun way to learn and take part' option;

c. Discussion board for 'other people to get back to you'.

14. The live question-answer panels provided by chat and streamed video help young people to appreciate other perspectives, as do blogs focusing on the experiences of individuals.

15. Despite their appeal to young people, the chat and game tools in particular would require acceptance by educational authorities, given the norm of discouraging their use in school or community education contexts. The chat tool also must be designed and supervised/ moderated to ensure safe use by young people.

16. The toolkit should be designed to avoid duplication of effort on the part of contributors. Rather than being seen as separate tools, the toolkit should enable content to be presented in different formats, e.g. questions and answers, or issues and options presented variously in FAQ, Issue Map, or Discussion Board form according to preference, to minimise effort.

Recommended next steps

17. We believe the current study provides a sound basis for further developing and piloting an e-engagement package complemented by further research to assess that pilot: -

a) Before further work is undertaken a Youth Reference Group representative of young people in Scotland should be established to help enlist the support of their peers, including relevant stakeholder groups. The input of on-going initiatives such as the Commissioner for Children and Young People, Scottish Youth Parliament, Young Scot, Dialogue Youth and Highland Youth Voice would be highly desirable.

b) The tools need to be developed to the same degree of functionality.

c) Extensive discussion of the content and evaluation of a pilot e-engagement is needed, to secure the necessary partnerships with government, industry and non-government stakeholders (local as well as national). These would further develop the authoring process, provide support for group facilitators, refine the evaluation criteria and indicators, and establish incentives for young peoples' continued involvement in the engagement process.

d) A 'one-size fits all' product may detract from the success of any future stakeholder engagement exercise, since differences in language and culture (if not technical skill) are likely to exclude children on the one hand and older people on the other. Groups such as the Children's Parliament and Age Concern Scotland should be consulted on how the tools may best be used to support the participation of younger and older age groups in the RWM debate.

e) The tools and content should nevertheless be designed to cater for the widest possible age group, by finding an appropriate balance between accessibility and wide appeal. Accessibility means using plain English written for a 9-12 reading age, as well as complying with design guidelines for people with disabilities. Translations to minority ethnic languages may also be desirable. There is a trade-off between accessibility and using multimedia elements to enhance the general appeal of the tools.

f) The organisational mechanisms needed to support the continued involvement of content authors, moderators and facilitators should be further defined and developed.

g) Given rapid change in technology the selection of tools for e-engagement should be reviewed and there is a need for further research on the use of the issue map format. Although well established, this has not been previously applied in e-engagement with young people.

h) The participants were already members of groups engaged in discussion of current political issues, and the results may therefore not be representative of young people who (a) do not find face-to-face discussion appealing; or (b) do not find the internet appealing. The next stage should establish the extent of any such bias.