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Beware of the Leopard

Alexandra Runswick
10 July 2008

Alexandra Runswick (Unlock Democracy): I have been more than a little sceptical about the government’s plans for a citizen’s summit on the proposed British Statement of Values. I was worried it might be like the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, where Arthur Dent discovers that the plans for the demolition of his house had been on display for nine months; it’s just that they were on display in a cellar without any lights, at the bottom of a locked filing cabinet, stuck in a disused lavatory, with a sign on the door saying “Beware of the Leopard." So yes, you can be engaged in the policy making process just as long as you are and-picked by a polling company, the government then determines the subject matter, how long the conversation will last and whether the conversation will be followed up by any action. 

So it was with some trepidation and a smattering of scepticism that I approached the National framework for citizen engagement that has just been published. Would this document live up to all my fears of a whitehall-ese document on engagement that fundamentally misses the point? Well, yes and no.

There are some definite positives to this engagement narrative. Firstly there is the fact that national government is actually trying to develop a systematic approach to engaging citizens. This may sound trivial but it is all too easy to do citizen engagement badly and when it is a government department that is running a glorified focus group and calling it a citizen’s jury, this just deepens the public’s consultation fatigue and cynicism about politics.  I would far rather the government gave up entirely on involving the public than they continue to run consultation exercises that are basically a photo op for a cabinet minister or formal requirement on some policy development flowchart.

So that fact that government is thinking seriously about how this should be done is very much to be welcomed.  As are the principles they have put forward.  My boss, Peter Facey outlined the tests he thought any public engagement exercise should meet and they are broadly reflected in the proposals. The government has proposed the following principles should underpin any engagement exercise run by central government:

  • They register with the appropriate public. To achieve this, they must be viewed as a beneficial experience and participants should feel better informed as a result;
  • They are as broadly representative and accessible as possible involving a broad spread of the population and ensuring that a good cross section of relevant audiences are engaged as part of the process;
  • They are credible so that people believe they matter. To achieve this, there should be a robust objective standard in place for how engagement mechanisms should be applied to a national policy issue and effectively delivered: there must be feedback to participants in deliberative engagement exercises and a commitment to appropriate levels of evaluation;
  • They are open and transparent in that participants must be aware in advance of the degree of influence they might have, and the way in which the government will consider and take on their conclusions.There must be a shared understanding of when and how these mechanisms will be used;
  • They are systemic and embedded in the policy making process otherwise people could regard them as gimmicks damaging the legitimacy of the process;
  • They are consistent with the fundamental principles of representative democracy. Government and Parliament must continue to have the space to consider the impact of any changes in policy, for example where there are substantial resource implications.

While Unlock Democracy would certainly place more emphasis on the independence of the process, these principles could form the basis of meaningful engagement.

Secondly, it is great to see that they are exploring ways for national government to engage with citizens. It is all too easy for Westminster to decree that local government must trial all kinds of innovative engagement exercises and devolve power to citizens, whilst doing nothing themselves. National government seeking to engage citizens is definitely a step in the right direction, and potentially quite a radical one.

So far so good; the government appears to be listening. Maybe they are really going to make this work. And then I read the detailed proposals.  Was somebody else writing this section of the document? Had they not seen the principles of engagement?  Peter Facey has discussed has discussed the proposals for citizens juries and the much heralded citizens summit here but while it’s the citizens summit that gets the attention what about the other proposals? 

Petitioning is one of the oldest forms of political participation in the UK. There are a number of councils who have used petitioning very successfully; both the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly have petitioning committees and 10 Downing Street launched its e-petitions system to much fanfare. We can of course already petition Parliament, you just have make sure that the front page is handwritten so that it can, with due solemnity, be placed in the bag by the speaker’s chair. What happens to it after that is rather haphazard, but if you’re lucky you will get a response from someone at some point.  Some countries have citizen’s initiative; we have a bag on the back of the speaker’s chair.

The engagement narrative, as it is apparently called in the Ministry of Justice, being both down with the kids and web 2.0 ignores petitioning in general and focuses on e-petitions. The House of Commons Procedure committee has already published a report on this and suggested that Parliament should tentatively move in this direction. However rather than opting for a petitions committee along the lines of the Scottish and European Parliaments or Welsh Assembly they have proposed that petitions have to be taken through Parliament by the lead petitioner's constituent MP. I fully understand and support the desire to have an integrated role for MPs in the process but there is a great danger that under these proposals MPs could become gatekeepers rather than facilitators.

In theory each MP will present their constituents petition regardless of whether or not they agree with it. However I am concerned about how this would work in practice particularly as there is no filtering mechanism. Most petitioning committees use some kind of trigger system, so that they only consider petitions that reach a certain number of signatures for example. Under the current proposals MPs would be sent and assuming they fell within Parliament’s remit, be expected to present every single petition received from a constituent. In the nearly 2 years that the Downing Street e-petitions system has been in place there over 29,000 petitions have been submitted. It would be all too easy therefore for MPs to be forced to become the filter and decide which of the many petitions they have received should be presented to Parliament.

Also other than making petitions easier to submit, these proposals actually do very little to engage citizens. Although once recorded in Hansard the petition will be referred to the relevant select committee, it is unlikely they would have time to investigate. After all most select committees monitor the output of government departments as well as conducting inquiries into relevant policy areas. I am in favour of increasing the powers of select committees and expanding their roles but surely creating a petitions committee would be a better way of doing this? 

Fundamentally these proposals are a step in the right direction but the government has to recognise that engagement, when it works, is about a process and not just an event or a flashy web-based mechanism. What is critical now, is whether the government engages with the responses to
this consultation and is able to adapt these proposals or just carries on
regardless. 

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