OPINION9 June 2010

Your cuts, your way

Opinion

George Osborne’s announcement yesterday of a consultation on the coming public spending cuts has met with a predictable reaction.

The Guardian’s Tom Clark summed up the exercise pithily, writing that “free citizens will be asked to come together and agree what, exactly, they would like to see savaged in their own community”.

Osborne said the scale of the problem meant the spending review, due to be announced in the autumn, would have to be different from past reviews which “have not exactly been collegiate affairs”. The framework document published by the Treasury yesterday revealed that “over the next few weeks, the government will begin a process to engage and involve the whole country in the difficult decisions that will have to be taken,” including a series of events over the summer to discuss and debate various aspects of public spending.

Speaking to BBC radio, former Tory chancellor Nigel Lawson called the exercise a “PR ploy”, though he conceded “it may be a very good PR ploy”. Lawson questioned whether asking the public was such a great idea. “It’s the government’s job to decide what is to be done,” he said.

But Osborne is determined that “we are all in this together”. “What we want to do is make sure that all political parties, that the brightest and best brains across Whitehall and the public sector, that voluntary groups, think tanks, trade unions, members of the public are all engaged in the debate and discussion about how we collectively deal with the problem,” he said. “After all it is our collective national debt.”

The Treasury hasn’t given us much detail yet on how the exercise will be conducted, but talk of public consultation will cause some hearts to sink, both in the research industry and beyond. Recent attempts have not always been stellar. The ‘Big Conversation’ launched in 2003 is remembered mainly for the conspicuous absence of comments critical of government policy, particularly the Iraq War. In 2006 Number 10 began inviting online petitions through its website, only to find it had opened a can of worms that were often angry (on road pricing plans) and sometimes just a bit mischievous (on making ‘Gold’ by Spandau Ballet the national anthem). Since then a consultation on nuclear power stations had to be scrapped and started again because the courts declared it unfair. Even then, the agency hired to have a second go was found in breach of the MRS code of conduct for failing to adequately ensure that respondents would not “be led towards a particular answer” – none of which stopped the government pressing ahead with its plans.

Sir Michael Bichard of the Institute for Government told the BBC that the public is “jaundiced” about consultation because “governments of all colours have tended to use consultation exercises as a way of getting people to agree what they had already decided to do, in other words a validation exercise”.

But if this is all just an attempt to lend legitimacy to decisions that will be tough and controversial, is that so wrong? On the Today programme yesterday, former Downing Street strategy chief Matthew Taylor, now chief executive of the RSA, discussed the ways consultation can be used. “The important distinction to be drawn… is between processes of engagement like the Big Conversation and different forms of decision-making, proper forms of deliberation,” he said. “If you’re going to engage the public in making decisions like how you allocate a budget, you have to use a pretty robust process, something like a citizens’ jury. But that means that you’re really handing over quite a lot of control to citizens and they can make decisions that you don’t like. I suspect that what we’ll hear from the government is not a robust process like that but more a kind of form of engagement.”

It’s not the first time that research methods have been used for purposes beyond just gathering information. In 2007 we reported on efforts by Greater Manchester Police to gather feedback from ethnic minority communities. It was partly an information-gathering exercise, but it was also about being seen to pay attention to people’s concerns, so that they would feel safe and confident enough to take control of their own communities and help deter crime and anti-social behaviour themselves. It was, at least to an extent, research for research’s sake.

But a consultation process as Taylor describes which sets out to merely air issues without allowing participants a real influence on decisions, could prove counterproductive. As well as being diverse, public opinion is confused and contradictory when people aren’t given the chance to reflect on their views in a broader context and refine them.

When it comes to slashing spending, even pleasing some of the people some of the time seems like a lofty ambition.

1 Comment

10 years ago

Matthew Taylor is correct to point out that pretty robust methods will be needed to engage the public in a meaningful consultation on the spending cuts. He mentions citizen's juries as a suitable method. However it is probably worth adding that there are in fact many other methods of deliberative engagement that could be used to involve people in the debate (there are too many to list here but for more info go to http://www.peopleandparticipation.net/display/Involve/Home). The question is not whether or not the techniques exist. We have the technology! Rather the question is whether or not the willpower and genuine desire is there for decision makers to execute a national debate in this way. The danger of going down the route of a process that is not robust is that the outcome is based on the views and opinions of those who can shout the loudest rather than meaningful insight. For now we will have to wait and see. www.participate.uk.com

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