Published on May 13, 2010

When the going gets tough, the tough need to sit down and talk…

By Edward Andersson

Edward Andersson is European Associate for Involve and an established expert on methods of participatory decision making. He set up Participationcompass.org – one of Europe’s leading public engagement sites, and has advised a number of organisations on public engagement strategies, including the Home Office, the European Commission, the OECD, WHO Europe, UNDP Turkey and numerous Local Authorities and Health Trusts.

“When you’re leading, don’t talk.” Thomas E. Dewey (American Politician)

There is a common belief in politics that tough times require tough leaders. Too often commentators on both the left and the right of the political spectrum take the view that public engagement is a luxury for better times. The secretive coalition negotiations over the past few days have certainly left the public in the dark. That makes it all the more encouraging that the Agreement between the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives speaks of “radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government and community groups”. My personal opinion is that citizen engagement is all the more important when difficult decisions need to be taken.

There is no shortage of difficult decisions to take in the coming parliament. The budget deficit is staggering in scope and the Institute for Fiscal Studies has slammed all three main parties for failing to be upfront with voters about this in their election campaign. Fear has the potential to stop politicians and civil servants being honest with citizens. Supposedly Mervyn King thinks that the savage nature of the cuts will doom whoever wins to electoral oblivion for a generation. This is certainly true if parties carry on treating the public as if they can’t handle the truth, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

The view that ordinary voters are too ignorant and short-sighted to be trusted to do anything beyond putting a piece of paper in a box ever five years has a long history. Opponents of public engagement like to quote Edmund Burke’s speech to the Electors of Bristol to support their view that the role of the leader is to lead, not listen:

“Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

However, this is a very selective reading; a few lines later Burke goes on to say:

“what sort of reason is that, in which the determination precedes the discussion; in which one set of men deliberate, and another decide; and where those who form the conclusion are perhaps three hundred miles distant from those who hear the arguments?”

I’m with Burke on this one: local people will be able to target necessary cuts far better than officials in Whitehall however educated and knowledgeable they might be. Edmund Burkes’ speech with its internal contradictions highlights the tension inherent in political leadership between treating citizens as dependent constituents to look out for and treating them as actors in their own right.

The problem is that treating citizens as if they were children unable to comprehend and deal with a difficult message becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. The illusion that the British people can have its cake and eat it fuels unrealistic expectations and public cynicism.

Until citizens are involved and informed they will punish politicians who over promise and under deliver. Matt Leighninger suggests in his excellent book that the time has come to move from a parent-child relationship between politicians and citizens to an adult-adult relationship.

The truth is that forward thinking leaders have always listened to citizens and acted accordingly. Increasingly they have also found that better solutions are created if power is delegated. Ironically, forward thinking politicians can achieve more when they share power with the public, as engagement can reduce conflict and increase ownership over difficult choices. This is demonstrated in detail in our coming publication ‘Talking for a change’, to be launched next month.

To finish off I’d like to counter Dewey’s old fashioned view of what leadership is with a quote from another American politician who rightly said:

“No one ever listened themselves out of a job” Calvin Coolidge (American President)

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