All posts from: August 2010
In the Daily Telegraph, Andrew Gilligan has been having a go at ‘nonsultations’ – cynical attempts by government to lend legitimacy to pre-determined decisions, masquerading as consultation exercises.
The purpose of nonsultation, Gilligan writes, “is almost never to act on the public’s views. It is to manage, manipulate, or suppress them”.
He is particularly scathing of the government’s current Spending Challenge, which seeks to gather suggestions for saving public money. Gilligan’s suggestion, predictably enough, is to scrap consultations.
“Nonsultation’s glossy brochures are no substitute for informed decision-making and real democratic engagement,” he argues.
Cynicism about public consultation exercises is, of course, nothing new, but Gilligan has given us a rather nice new term to describe it.
In the preface to their 2009 book The Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett use data from the World Bank, WHO, the UN and the OECD to argue that more equal societies do better in almost every respect than more unequal ones. The prevalence of problems as diverse as infant mortality, imprisonment rates, teenage pregnancy, murder and obesity is, they say, statistically linked to income inequality, and the book is filled with graphs illustrating these correlations.
But their conclusions have come under attack from right-wing think tank the Policy Exchange, as well as the Taxpayer’s Alliance. In an article for the Guardian the Policy Exchange’s Natalie Evans says the claims they make are not supported by the statistics. Some of the conclusions, she says, rely on one or two extreme cases to make a case, while others result from “clusters” of countries that tend to show similarities, such as the Scandinavian or English-speaking nations.
Of course, a heated debate has ensued, not least on the comments thread of Evans’ article. What’s interesting is how little the discussion focuses on the facts. The problem with topics like this is that some people are simply inclined to believe one thing or the other, regardless of evidence. Many people (particularly Guardian readers, we suspect) hold the book’s central assertion that inequality is bad for us all to be a self-evident truth. They will continue to believe it with or without statistical analysis to back it up, and they are happy to say so. Similarly, one suspects that the likes of the Policy Exchange and the Taxpayer’s Alliance are inclined to believe that a society where people are free to enrich themselves is better because, well, that’s what they believe.
If research is about making an argument or telling a story based on evidence, it’s worth considering just how much people’s view of (or interest in) the evidence can be influenced by what they already think.
The UK’s new government has been keen to position itself as one that listens, using crowdsourcing in high-profile attempts to garner comments and suggestions on its legislative programme, on planned public sector spending cuts and on unnecessary laws that should be repealed.
But government consultation exercises have a chequered reputation, and questions are already being asked about whether the new administration really wants to hear ideas.
The Guardian reports this morning that the 9,500 online comments on the government’s programme have resulted in zero changes to policy. In responses published “without publicity” various govenrment departments have, for the most part, either interpreted comments as an endorsement of existing policy or dismissed them.
Were the public’s suggestions too daft to be of any use? Were the government’s policies so perfectly honed that there was nothing we could add? Or was government not as interested in hearing constructive criticism as it thought it was?
Simon Burall, director of Involve, a not-for-profit body promoting public engagement, told the Guardian: “You have to give the government some credit for trying to do this, but badly designed consultations like this are worse than no consultations at all.”
It doesn’t bode well for the ongoing ‘Spending Challenge’ and ‘Your Freedom’ consultations.
In Burall’s words, trying to take credit for listening to people without actually doing it will only “diminish trust and reduce the prospect that people will engage again”.