The hidden assumptions in public engagement: A case study of engaging on ethics in government data analysis

Julie Barnett, Hannah Durrant, Emily Rempel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This study examines the hidden assumptions around running public-engagement exercises in government. We study an example of public engagement on the ethics of combining and analysing data in national government – often called data science ethics. We study hidden assumptions, drawing on hidden curriculum theories in education research, as it allows us to identify conscious and unconscious underlying processes related to conducting public engagement that may impact results. Through participation in the 2016 Public Dialogue for Data Science Ethics in the UK, four key themes were identified that exposed underlying publicengagement norms. First, that organizers had constructed a strong imagined public as neither overly critical nor supportive, which they used to find and engage participants. Second, that official aims of the engagement, such as including publics in developing ethical data regulations, were overshadowed by underlying meta-objectives, such as counteracting public fears. Third, that advisory group members, organizers and publics understood the term 'engagement' in varying ways, from creating interest to public inclusion. And finally, that stakeholder interests, particularly government hopes for a positive report, influenced what was written in the final report. Reflection on these underlying mechanisms, such as the development of meta-objectives that seek to benefit government and technical stakeholders rather than publics, suggests that the practice of public engagement can, in fact, shut down opportunities for meaningful public dialogue.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)180-190
Number of pages11
JournalResearch for All
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2019


  • Big Data
  • Data Science
  • Ethnography
  • participation
  • Public engagement
  • public participation


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