OPINION2 June 2009

Voters need more than a walk-on part every five years

Government News Opinion UK

Simon is director of the not-for-profit organisation Involve, which promotes public participation in decision-making. Here he looks at what the recent expenses scandal in the UK Parliament tells us about the need for public engagement in decision-making, and how government can go about it

Governments, and individual MPs, are elected on the basis of party manifestos. These set out the tone and principles by which a party will govern, as well as making specific pledges to voters about policies which will be enacted.

Yet many of the decisions that the government and Parliament takes on our behalf are complex. Most voters won’t agree with everything in the manifesto of the party they vote for, and many issues are too complex to be encapsulated in a manifesto anyway. For example, none of the party manifestos provided any clue of what any of the political parties might do in response to the credit crisis because the problem wasn’t anticipated. The same is true for many issues that affect voters deeply.

The scent of disconnection and privilege will continue to hang around Parliament because voters only have a walk-on part once every five years. They are cut out of key decisions that affect the way they live. To freshen the air in Westminster, the government and parliament will need to open the doors and engage people in meaningful, two-way conversations about critical decisions.

Indeed, the government has recognised that mature conversations between the public and decision-makers can bring significant benefits. That is why it imposed the new Duty to Involve on local authorities and other bodies taking decisions on our behalf. This new duty means that citizen involvement is no longer a luxury but a requirement, as authorities must now involve representatives of communities in any significant decisions which are being taken.

The bank of evidence that engagement can lead to more effective decision-making, while small, is growing. However, it is not as simple as just engaging with the public at every opportunity. Indeed, the field of public engagement is an area where more is definitely not better. Poorly executed public engagement can be worse than no engagement; it runs the risks of falsely raising expectations that people’s views will be both listened to and acted on. Our research and experience has led us to develop three rules for effective engagement.

  1. Be clear about your objective. What are you trying to achieve by engaging with the public? Why is taking up people’s valuable time the best way to achieve your objective?
  2. Understand the community that you are going to engage with. Do different groups within the community share a history that might lead to conflict? What is your history with the community? Do they trust you?
  3. Be clear about who you need to engage with. Who do you need in the room to achieve the objective you have set yourself? How are you going to reach groups in the community that are unwilling or unable to participate? (For example, consultations don’t need to be formal – there are other ways.)

In following these rules, decision-makers should find themselves in situations where they decide not to engage the public because, for example, there is a better way to achieve their objective. Equally, though, decision-makers should also find themselves identifying issues where they don’t know what the public’s views are in great detail, often because the issue is so complex that the public itself doesn’t really know what its views are. In these situations, rather than making decisions behind closed doors, decision-makers must create a space in which citizens can engage in a conversation with them, and between themselves. And this conversation must significantly affect the final decision. Unless this happens the disconnect between citizens and those who make decisions on their behalf will continue to grow.