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What do the people want?

It has become commonplace for Government departments at all levels to ask people for their views. It seems as if no new policy or legislative plan can be launched without an extensive period of consultation with all those who may be affected. The UK government’s website page for ‘Consultations’ lists 494 consultations published already this year out of a total of 3,796 since the decade began. Devolved and local government too consult widely on everything from education policy to residents’ parking schemes. In a controversial move recently, health trusts in Northern Ireland have even begun a consultation on how exactly to cut £70 million from their budgets for local hospitals and healthcare services.

Perhaps this is following a trend towards interactivity set in the wider world. Here it seems that every online purchase leads to a request for feedback, and everyone from the local radio station to your favourite supermarket invites you follow it on Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook. But maybe Government is slightly different in so far as it is less interested in securing your business and more in trying to meet a demand for greater participation and improved democracy. Certainly new technology, with its increased reach, speed, and interactivity, does seem to hold particular promise for letting governments know what the people want. However this begs a series of questions about whether government bodies actually want to know what the people want, how this is being measured, and whether they are prepared to give it to them.

New Polar Vessel visualisation by Cammell Laird / BAS. Fair use via Wikimedia Commons.

Leaving aside fraught issues about Brexit there is the widely-reported case where the National Environment Research Council ran a consultation in 2016 to find the name for a new £200 million polar research ship. Despite gathering 124,109 votes nationwide, the name “Boaty McBoatface” was passed over in favour of fifth placed name “RRS Sir David Attenborough” which had attracted only 10,284 votes – although in a compromise move the name was given to a smaller robot submersible vessel.

Are there more serious instances where people are being asked what they want and perhaps are not getting it? Could it be that government bodies are abusing the processes of consultation to give their decisions a veneer of democratic legitimacy? Are they obtaining the benefits of citizen engagement, stakeholder knowledge, and enhanced legitimacy, but without any commitment to giving the people what they want? Petition sites that allow members of the public to suggest initiatives for government to “consider” are increasingly popular at both European and Westminster level, as well as in Scotland and Wales and many local authorities. However, these may seem to some people to be redolent of medieval rituals where the common people petitioned their masters—and perhaps about as effective.

Hommage du comté de Clermont-en-Beauvaisis. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

From the citizen side, is online culture bringing the power of crowdsourcing, the participatory dynamic of open-source working, and a sense that free, democratic speech can now be expressed through a mouse click? Is our civic duty really met by simply providing an email contact on a petition webpage or clicking ‘like’ on a website? Or is this rather an instance of “slacktivism” and not a properly new form of democratic engagement for the online age?

The UK courts have been asked to assess the democratic quality of consultation exercises on a number of occasions. A recent case summarised the position, endorsing a series of rules known as the Gunning or Sedley Principles. These (quite reasonably) require that: (i) consultation must take place when the proposal is still at a formative stage; (ii) sufficient reasons must be put forward for the proposal to allow for intelligent consideration and response; (iii) adequate time must be given for consideration and response; and (iv) the product of consultation must be conscientiously taken into account. However in an important, recent decision in the Supreme Court the judges avoided the suggestion that there is any general common law duty to consult or that consultation should follow any particular format. Context is everything; the majority of the Supreme Court took the view that their role here is less concerned with opening up a public space for political participation than with protecting individuals where a right, an interest, or a legitimate expectation engages a more conventional idea of fairness.

This leaves public bodies with lots of discretion about how and who they consult. While there is plenty of guidance on good practice, and a superb handbook detailing 57 imaginative methods of engaging, Government is not always open to following this. Too often consultation involves simply a link to a .pdf document and a general invitation to respond. Indeed the UK Government’s two page document “Consultation Principles 2016” presents remarkably modest proposals. The eleven principles offered therein range from advice to use plain English, to a suggestion that consultees be given enough information to make an informed response, to a recommendation that agreement be sought before publication. This has led some critics to complain of distortions in the process, and even that the potential of consultation to reinvigorate democratic engagement is being wasted.

It is suggested that sometimes government consultation can muzzle views through a sort of participatory disempowerment whereby the existence of an official consultation exercise closes off further, alternative, or subaltern voices who are silenced by an official depiction of “the public” and the views garnered there. These official constructions of “the public” and of “community” and citizenship” can be made up quite arbitrarily, and may well privilege self-selected and more articulate groups of residents or activists. Nevertheless the views produced here come to be seen as neutral, or as valid “local knowledge” that can be given priority. This can operate to deplete the civic imagination rather than facilitate it.

MTR Express på Stockholm Central by Holger.Ellgaard. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Very often, too, government more actively controls the form of the debate, its agenda, and the sources of information. Partisan citizens with vested interests or technical expertise may be excluded. Organizers set the agenda and questions for discussion, keep the records, and select which recommendations to ignore and which to accept. Putting the interaction online does not necessarily improve the interaction. Indeed, there is a view that it makes it worse. The internet is no more value-free, unstructured, or universal than any other space – and often people behave badly online.

All this suggests that we must work harder to make consultation effective and meaningful. The gains to be won by connecting governments with the public who they serve are huge, both in terms of improving service delivery and enhancing legitimacy. Of course, there does remain the problem that the people may not want very sensible things, and the challenge that this lays down to those who have asked them. This is perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in Sweden where the experience of the National Environment Research Council in the UK and its polar vessel inspired the respondents to an online poll initiated by a train operator to successfully propose that a new train be named Trainy McTrainface.

Featured image credit: Vote, Word, Letters, Scrabble by Wokandapix. CC0 public domain via Pixabay.

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