Published on May 26, 2009

Treat the public as adults

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is the Director of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

The anger in the country about the political system is visible and growing. The litany of excessive, egregious and potentially fraudulent claims grows longer by the day; yesterday’s moat is overtaken by today’s floating duck house, to be superseded by tomorrow’s extravagant excess. While the way the debate has developed is healthy, it needs to go much further yet if we are to see a real difference in the way Parliament relates to the public.

The Speaker and four MPs have so far lost their jobs as a direct result of this scandal. Yet the claiming of individual scalps is clearly not enough. This has led some, including Esther Rantzen, to push themselves forwards as potential anti-sleaze candidates. The appetite for a raft of anti-sleaze candidates appears limited because, in part, the public is not interested in seeing a reshuffle of personnel. The anger is now aimed at much more than the entitlement and privilege, apparent or real, of our political masters. The anger is aimed at the system itself.

The debate has widened to encompass reform of the institution of Parliament itself. The perennial issue of reform of the House of Lords raises its head again. The Whip system has come under attack for stifling real debate, and calls are being made to strengthen the committee system to provide for greater oversight and accountability. Even the political parties themselves are under the microscope as commentators explore ways to reduce dependency on vested interests.

Yet none of these reforms, critical though they are, will bring Parliament and our representatives closer to us. The scent of disconnect and privilege will remain because we, the voters, only have a role at the election, a walk on part once every five years. Yet many of the decisions that the government and Parliament takes on our behalf are complex. No matter what store a party places in its manifesto most voters won’t agree with everything in it, and many issues are too complex to be encapsulated in a manifesto anyway.

The response of the government to the credit crisis is a case in point. The government was responding to an unprecedented situation, not covered in its manifesto. It had no claim to a mandate for the decisions it was taking as it poured public money into private institutions. Action had to be taken, and taken fast, but the public were effectively cut out of the debate and decision-making process that went on in Whitehall, Westminster and Fleet Street. Yet this was a debate of critical importance to all citizens, affecting our potential for employment and our future tax bills for years to come. What was the national consensus about the amount of debt that should be taken on? The debate about whether or not to nationalise the banks which took place between our leaders will have profound implications for the shape of our economy, and yet the involvement of the public was reduced to the letters’ pages of our national newspapers.

The government has recognised that public involvement in decision-making brings significant benefits. That is why it passed the new Duty to Involve on local authorities and other bodies taking decisions on our behalf. This new duty requires authorities to involve representatives of communities in any significant decisions. It feels instinctively right that giving communities more say will lead to decisions which lead to better outcomes. Communities know what the problem is, they often hold the key to the solution, and by getting buy-in authorities stand a much better chance of a decision working.

And the bank of evidence is growing that demonstrates that this instinct is correct. For example, engaging communities in crime prevention can lead to falling crime rates and the cost of a good community engagement process is no more than installing a CCTV system. Involving the public doesn’t mean bringing them into the council chamber. It doesn’t mean the local council and elected representatives abdicating their responsibilities as leaders. What it does mean is being clearer about who will be affected by the decisions that are being taken, listening to their concerns and suggestions while being clear with them the extent to which they can influence the decision. The best local authorities increasingly understand that, done properly, engaging with citizens will bring efficiency savings and more durable solutions to complex problems.

The case is no different for national politics and decision-making. Changing the personnel, tinkering with the system, or even reforming it wholesale will make no difference to the disconnect that currently exists between politicians, civil servants and the public. The government, parliament, the political parties and individual MPs must find new ways to have mature conversations with the public if trust in our political system is to be rebuilt.

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