Published on March 23, 2011

Here we go again?

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 current government has a commendable instinct to admit that it isn’t expert in everything; that the public may be in a better position to solve a problem and have knowledge that ministers don’t.

We saw this with the Spending Challenge and Your Freedom public consultations last year. Both of these sprang from what I believe was a genuine desire to do things differently. Both could, and should, have been successful because they were trying to identify information that was distributed across the population – poor government spending and ridiculous laws respectively. However, both ultimately failed to deliver anywhere near their full potential and have probably in the long run increased public cynicism about the government’s motives for engaging citizens more generally.

Well, the government is at it again. Speaking on behalf of Business Secretary Vince Cable, Business and Enterprise Minister, Mark Prisk has picked-up the baton and identified another area where government would benefit from the wisdom of citizens. But, the government appears to be making exactly the same mistakes as it did last year.

In a speech to the Federation of Small Businesses in Liverpooltoday, Prisk announced a consultation to better understand how regulations impact on business. There are over 21,000 such regulations and so the government has very sensibly decided to post the regulations in themes over a period of time. By doing this the government is making it easier for individuals and businesses to find regulations they might be interested in and comment.

However, I believe there is much more that the government needs to get right if it is to get the most out of this exercise and avoid accusations of running a sham consultation.

First, the government needs to be clear about why it is consulting. Is it consulting to identify regulations that most harm business, to identify those that annoy the greatest number of people, to build a consensus about which should be scrapped, or for some other reason? All of those objectives are legitimate, but will require the government to engage in very different ways. It’s difficult to achieve all of them, and impossible for people to engage effectively if they don’t understand why the government is consulting.

The Spending Challenge received over 100,000 individual ideas. This deregulation consultation appears to tap into the same wellspring of public dissatisfaction and so it is reasonable to assume that large numbers will be received. This raises the question of how the government is going to make the choices about  which ideas to take forward and which not. At the moment there are no clear criteria and the risk is that people will submit ideas that are perfectly reasonable from their perspective, but make no sense from the government’s perspective. The act of ignoring most suggestions (because this will inevitably be the case) without the public understanding the criteria, by which choices are being made, will further undermine the public’s confidence in such consultations.

I would argue therefore that although the government is right to be transparent about the regulations it is considering scrapping, it needs to be just as transparent about the process it will use to choose which of the public’s ideas to implement and which to ignore.

There are a number of technical issues related to running this sort of engagement process online, but I’ll restrict myself to addressing just one. Campaign and lobby groups are very adept at mobilising supporters around specific issues. How is the government going to ensure that highly rated ideas have popped up to the top on merit and not just because they have an efficient lobby behind them? This kind of gaming can be prevented very easily as this simple site asking people to rank scenic photos of the UK shows.

There is a wider, final point that needs to be made. This is a consultation aimed at business people. This makes sense; they are the very people who deal with these regulations on a regular basis. The general public is not in a good position to identify regulations having an impact on the bottom line. However, the regulations exist for a reason. It is important to hear which regulations impact negatively on business. But just because this is true, and even if the majority of the people in a particular sector feel the same way, doesn’t mean the regulation is wrong. How is the government going to make the trade-off between the legitimate needs of business on the one hand, and the wider community on the other? If it the process of making this trade-off is done in the dark then, whatever choices it makes, the government risks being accused of getting it wrong; of either favouring business at the expense of community safety, or of not really understanding the needs of business.

I’ve written at length before about the power of public engagement, and what value it can add to decision-making. I believe that the government is right to consider this an area where genuine consultation can make a big difference. I just wish that they would follow what are really very simple rules for getting it right.

Photo credit: Suttonhoo

6 Responses to “Here we go again?”

  1. Paul Johnston
    March 28, 2011 at 1:57 pm

    Simon – totally agree with you. You mention Scenic in terms of avoiding gaming while getting input from the public. There is a great free tool that has been developed for doing this – http://www.allourideas.org/ It is also open source so people can take it and build on it if they want!

  2. Simon Burall
    August 24, 2011 at 3:08 pm

    Jill Rutter at the Institute for Government has just blogged about some recent work that the IfG has done to analyse responses to the Red Tape Challenge. This appears to back-up my predications about the risks that the government was taking by being less than clear about the purpose of the process.

    http://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/blog/3348/sticky-red-tape/

    Full disclosure: Jill is a trustee of Involve.

  3. August 28, 2011 at 3:21 pm

    Hi, could someone please explain to me why the “gaming can be prevented very easily as this simple site asking people to rank scenic photos of the UK shows”. How does it show how to prevent gaming?

    • Simon Burall
      August 30, 2011 at 8:38 am

      Nicholas, thanks for the question and apologies for not making it clear in initial posting. I’d written about it before and just failed to make it clear again this time.

      The problem with many crowdsourcing and voting exercises is the following. People can post an idea and then send the url to their networks and ask everyone to vote for it. This is therefore easily manipulated by lobby groups or interest groups with large networks. In open voting systems like this it can therefore be difficult to know if ‘the public’ really thinks an idea is a good one, or if what you are measuring is the idea with the largest network behind it – which isn’t a bad thing by the way if that is what you are trying to do.

      Scenicornot.mysociety.org which I link to does it differently. People submit photos (in place of ideas). Others can come to the site to rank photos, but rather than being able to chose what they rank, they get presented with two random photos which they have to chose between. They can stay on the site as long as they like, ranking as many photos as they like. However, it is impossible for a lobby group – say for a tourist spot – to game the system by sending out a link to a particular photo. In this way you get a much better measure of the public’s likes and dislikes. My contention is that in some public policy crowdsourcing exercise setting the system up like this would give you a better idea of what the public really thinks.

  4. August 30, 2011 at 8:48 am

    Thanks Simon,

    That’s what I was missing – the ‘anti-gaming’ characteristics. Random selection should pretty much do the trick.

    Still, it would also degrade the effort, the ability to go to where one’s expertise is greatest which is often an important part of crowdsourcing – would certainly bugger up Wikipedia 🙂

    • Simon Burall
      August 30, 2011 at 10:02 am

      glad it helped. I don’t think that such an anti-gaming strategy will work in every situation, but there have been a number of places recently where the government has set-up crowdsourcing exercises that purport to collect the public view but don’t because of the problem described. There anti-gaming strategies are appropriate.

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