Published on April 18, 2011

My two cents on the duty

By Tim Hughes

Tim is Open Government Programme Manager at Involve and coordinator of the UK Open Government Network - a coalition of active citizens and civil society organisations committed to making government work better for people through increased transparency, participation and accountability.

Wooden post with ear defendersConfirmation of the Government’s intention to repeal the Duty to Involve, tucked away in the Department for Communities and Local Government’s Best Value statutory guidance consultation, has led to a flurry of debate within Involve and beyond over its merits. My colleague Edward Andersson wrote a post last week laying out some of the weaknesses of the way the duty has operated and suggested that it should be made more specific. Elsewhere, Davy Jones has given a vehement defense of the duty, arguing among other things that its repeal will send the wrong signal to public institutions. While I am sympathetic towards this argument, I am doubtful that good public engagement can be achieved through a duty, and on that basis I think it is right for the duty to be repealed.

It’s important to distinguish between the right to be involved, which a duty can provide, and the right to be genuinely involved, which no form of legislation could ever ensure. My argument rests on the position that bad public engagement is worse than no engagement at all.

Findings from the Pathways through Participation research [to be published in summer 2011] show that bad engagement leads to public cynicism and reluctance to participate in the future. A number of interviewees spoke about participating in bad – perhaps even cynical – engagement exercises where they felt the decision had already been made and that their involvement had not achieved anything. In a recent post Edward set out five tell tale signs of bad engagement, these were:

  1. When the answer doesn’t matter
  2. When you already know the answer
  3. When you don’t want to know the answer
  4. When the people you are asking don’t know the answer
  5. When people don’t care what the answer is

I would add to these: When you’re primarily involving people because you’re duty bound to do so. Until public institutions are convinced of the benefits of genuine engagement, I’d suggest at least one of the five signs above is likely to be present in most public involvement exercises.

Bad engagement detracts from good engagement – the public’s patience is not an endless resource and must not be treated as such.

Can cultural change of the kind required to make public institutions genuinely participative be achieved through a law? I’d suggest not. Commonly cited examples of where laws have been successful at driving culture change (e.g. drink driving) differ from this circumstance in at least one very important respect: the intention behind public engagement matters as much as, if not more than, the act itself. It does not matter why a person does not drink and drive, only that they do not get behind the wheel after having had a drink. It does however matter why we involve the public in decision making. A duty without culture change leads us down the road of tick box engagement, at the price of diminishing the trust of citizens and their willingness to sustain their participation.

Of much more concern to me than the repeal of the Duty to Involve is the abolition of the Place Survey, which included an indicator that measured the percentage of people who felt they could influence decisions in their locality. The Place Survey could therefore have provided a useful source of information to track and improve the quality of public engagement. Together with making the case for its benefits and building capacity within institutions, this would be a much more effective means of driving the culture change we seek. I fear that the duty is doing more harm than good.

Do you agree? At Involve we’re interested in hearing your views on the Duty to Involve.

  1. Have you found the Duty to Involve helpful, harmful or irrelevant in your work?
  2. What do you think the impact will be of repealing the Duty to Involve?
  3. What do you think the impact will be of repealing the Creating Strong, Safe and Prosperous Communities guidance?
  4. Do you think the existing Duty to Involve can be improved? If so, what would you do to make it better?

You can either comment on the blog below or email me at We plan to submit the various views and opinions gathered via email and comments on this blog to CLG as a consultation response, so do let us know if you’re happy for us to include them or to list you by name.

You can also respond to the CLG consultation directly (deadline 14th June 2011).


Picture Creative Commons Some rights reserved by Adrian Midgley

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