When "local" can’t happen locally

Central government has a critical and active role to play if Prime Minister David Cameron's "Big Society" idea is to be successful in the UK.
Simon Burall
12 August 2010

Central government has a critical and active role to play if Prime Minister David Cameron's "Big Society" idea is to be successful.

The new government has committed to greater openness, transparency and accountability in the way it does its business. A key plank of this commitment is providing more of a voice for citizens.  As a result, less than two months after the election, the coalition government embarked on three high profile attempts to engage the public. In May, at the launch of the coalition’s Programme for Government, members of the public were invited to provide their views on the programme. A few weeks later, at the beginning of July, George Osborne issued a challenge to citizens to find public spending savings, while Nick Clegg invited the public to identify laws and regulations that should be scrapped.

Almost immediately the government came under criticism from the press and the blogosphere, particularly for the Spending Challenge consultation. Criticisms ranged from those identifying a whitewash by a government keen to legitimise spending cuts, through to those identifying ways it could have been done better, and those keen to identify the humour in the situation; fancy adding the ‘Can this goat get more followers than HM Treasury Spending Challenge?’ page to your social media portfolio?

The government removed the interactive element of the Spending Challenge website only a week after it had gone live as the result of “a small number of malicious attacks”. Since then, the site’s users have been unable to see the suggestions of others, or to comment on or rate those suggestions. The coalition’s Our Programme consultation has now closed and the response from almost all government departments was that they are pleased to see broad support or agreement with what the government is already doing. Where they disagree with what citizens said, the response was that the public’s proposals are ‘not a priority’ or are a ‘mistake’. Without evidence about how each department has come to this conclusion it is difficult to evaluate this any way but negatively and it has sharpened criticism in the press, blogosphere and on Twitter.

Public engagement had been growing in importance for decades and was picked-up in new ways by New Labour, particularly in the last 10 years. The last government standardised the process of consultation by issuing a code of practice. It also imposed a Duty to Involve on local authorities and a range of other public bodies delivering services to the public. We also saw an explosion of ways to engage citizens; these were driven as much by the engagement sector itself developing new methodologies as it was by the growth of the internet and the more recent rise of social networking and web 2.0.

In many ways, what the coalition has tried to do with its three websites is nothing more than a natural extension of these developments. Nonetheless it is different in two crucial ways. It is different in scale and profile to almost all other government attempts to engage the public. Secondly, and more importantly, the government has set the terms of the consultations in a far looser way than any major public engagement process by a British government that I am aware of. All three websites are very open in the question that they are asking, the Spending Challenge and Your Freedom in particular ask the public for their ideas and the government says it will implement any good ones. The government is to be commended for the scale of its ambition as well as its willingness to give up control of the question.

However, the criticism highlighted above suggests that the Coalition still has a lot to learn from the lessons of the past 10 years or so of intensive and substantive public engagement on a range of complex public policy issues. Much of my professional life is now spent on designing public engagement processes that make decision-making more effective and strengthen the democratic engagement of citizens. I could get over excited and take thousands of words detailing ways in which government could run this kind of process better. However, in an effort to keep at least some readers, I’ll restrict myself to just one illustration.

The loose framing is refreshing, but also risks storing up big problems for the Coalition. The Spending Challenge site says “The most promising ideas will be taken forward in time for the Spending Review on 20th October”, while Your Freedom also talks about looking for “ideas for removing laws and regulations.” This raises the question as to what constitutes, from the Coalition’s perspective, a ‘promising idea’. Clearly not all ideas are equal, and some will be discounted. It is unlikely that the government is going to change the law on cannabis, make credit report companies illegal, or make significant changes to immigration policy.

However, these ideas have been submitted, and commented on, by individuals who clearly feel strongly about the issues. Without clear criteria having been established by government at the outset, the government will find it hard to demonstrate that it has used an objective method to screen the ideas. Individuals who have invested some time and energy in contributing will be more likely to feel that the whole consultation is a sham which is designed solely to legitimise what government was going to do anyway. Having talked to a few people associated with the process, I don’t actually believe this is true, but the perception will be very hard to shake-off.

My advice to government as the websites were being designed, had I been asked at that time, would have been to frame the question more tightly; to highlight the 3-5 criteria that it would use to judge a good idea. This would not restrict citizens from ranging over the whole of government policy, the process would have retained its admirable openness, but it would have restricted the ideas to ones which government is more able to deal with. People may have disagreed with the criteria, but long experience shows that processes are trusted more when those in charge are upfront about what input the public will have and what boundaries are set for input.

However, the government isn’t at the start of the process; it has thousands of ideas for saving money and thousands more for ways to get the state out of the face of citizens. Absolutely the worst thing it could do now would be to send the ideas into the Whitehall machine, hidden from public view, and spit out an answer at the far side. Unless those ‘anonymous’ civil servants accept a significant proportion of the ideas, the sound of criticism will become deafening and the public’s trust of future processes like these will be severely damaged.

There are many ways that the government could reframe the choices it will make before it winnows the ideas. David Cameron could highlight the success in terms of numbers, identify the challenge of sifting and play a strong leadership role by outlining very clearly the criteria he expects his ministers and the civil service to use as it examines the ideas. The public can then judge the choices made and hold the government accountable if it errs.

Greater legitimacy could be given to the process of choosing criteria by bringing together a group of citizens, chosen at random from those who submitted ideas, or more widely, to deliberate over the problem and identify the key criteria to be used by Whitehall. Bringing these citizens back at the end of the sifting process to evaluate how well Whitehall has kept to the criteria would be one way of adding an edge to the process and keeping departments on their toes. I don’t have the space here to outline how this process could be designed. However, time and again well designed engagement events, which government is prepared to listen to, show that citizens are more than capable of delivering sensible and helpful outcomes that, in many ways, are better than government could have produced alone.

The current level of criticism highlights the challenge facing government when it tries to engage the public. My concern is that the government will step back after the summer, take a long hard look at what has happened and conclude that trying to engage the public isn’t worth it. I believe that this would be a disaster for this government, and for our democracy itself.

Deciding never to engage again on this scale would be a mistake for many reasons. Over 100,000 ideas have been submitted to the two phases of the Spending Challenge. It is abundantly clear therefore that citizens want to engage, they want to be heard. But this really isn’t news; every time government (national or local) picks issues that citizens care about and designs a half decent process for them to do so, they turn up in droves. A colleague and I have just finished writing a paper for the Sciencewise Expert Resource Centre that synthesises the views of citizens who have engaged in deliberations about the national policy implications of complex, controversial scientific subjects as different as the use of animal-human hybrid cells in medical research, nanotechnology and the forensic use of DNA. Citizens who took part in these engagements see the value of giving up their time and energy to do so. For example, a participant in the animal-human hybrid cell engagement, highlighting a common sentiment said, “there was a great appreciation from participants, in the deliberative work and the public meeting, for being consulted and a strong desire from people to continue to learn about issues such as this.

However, involving the public because they want to be involved in issues that matter to them is only one reason to do so, and not the most compelling.  There are many more practical reasons why it should be done

Above all, if the right issue is picked and framed correctly the public can help government to make more effective decisions. This value can be seen in different ways. It can be seen very concretely, for example when an NHS Trust engages citizens about local health services. This engagement may lead to a reconfiguration of services, often saving money in the process, to deliver what citizens actually want, and know, will work. Or the value can be seen more abstractly where the values and aspirations of citizens help shape government investment in complex technologies such as nanotechnology. In this latter case, products that citizens think are the most important, for example curing fatal or debilitating diseases, are more likely to emerge years down the line instead of a new brand of lip gloss that marketers tell consumers they want because “science” means it makes you “ten times as attractive”.

Decisions are also getting more complex. The knowledge needed to solve many of society’s problems no longer resides in one place, ready to be evaluated by a minister and turned into a shiny new policy. Scientists may be able to tell politicians the impact of diesel particulates on human health and on engines, but economists are needed to identify the most efficient ways of dealing with the problem, while psychologists can spot the ways most likely to lead to behaviour change. Ordinary members of the public who have to live with the consequences will then tell the experts why they are wrong. It is only by bringing experts together with citizens that we can hope to identify effective, implementable solutions.

David Cameron has staked significant political capital in promoting the idea of the "Big Society". At the core of the Big Society is the idea that getting the state out of the way will unleash a wave of civic energy which will strengthen communities and deal with problems in ways that are more effective and efficient than government ever could. In many ways therefore the government’s attempts at mass engagement of citizens is pulling in totally the opposite direction to its desire to implement the Big Society.

Our paper for Sciencewise finds evidence that formal engagement processes at the national level can build on people's desire to have a say, and in the process can create greater enthusiasm for wider civic engagement from those people who take part. The implication is that well run national processes will help build the Big Society and deliver it at the local level. This makes sense. The Big Society can’t just be a local agenda. What happens at national level whether it be on tax and spending policy, or allowing GM crops to be grown, will have huge implications for local policy. Taking all controversial decisions at national level in ways that exclude citizens risks dampening their enthusiasm for engaging locally; what would the point of the Big Society be if local sentiment against GM potatoes was over-ridden by national policy? Unless citizens feel engaged in decisions at both levels, they are unlikely to engage at either level.

The criticism government is coming under for its three high-profile websites risks pushing it to the conclusion that public engagement isn’t worth it and citizens can’t be trusted. However, it must continue to do it, and do it better next time, otherwise citizens will decide that the government can’t be trusted. They’ll stop engaging, leaving the space wide open to special interest groups. Instead they will use that ultimate of public engagement tools, the ballot box, to demonstrate their distrust.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData