Published on August 4, 2011

There’s lots of prejudice and stupidity, but it isn’t from citizens

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.

mask of an angry manThere are many myths about involving citizens, a number of them based on the prejudiced assumption that people are either angry or stupid. The launch of the People’s Jury by the Guardian has brought all of these views to the fore. Yet there’s plenty of evidence that citizens are neither.



The launch of the People’s Jury in the Guardian on Sunday has provoked lots of comment, both negative and positive (I’ve created a bit.ly bundle of a little of this). This jury is a big idea and its originators have been spurred into action by what they describe as a “feral elite” who have “disproportionate influence over a demoted political class”. Made up of 1000 randomly selected citizens, the idea is that this jury will study and report on a range of issues related to corporate power and public life.

I’m not going to tackle the issue of whether this is a good idea, largely because trying to work this out on the basis of a few short articles and blog posts is a bad idea. Whether or the idea works will depend totally on how (if) the jury is implemented in practice, what information jurors are given, and the process used to make any decisions.

The Guardian article has generated a good number of comments. A significant proportion of these are critical of the idea that citizens should be involved in discussions like these. These comments represent the most prevalent of the stories people tell themselves as they try to justify not engaging with citizens. I thought therefore that I’d use them as a jumping off point for a bit of myth-busting. I’ve highlighted three common myths here. They are all interrelated and represent different sub-genres of the same strand of prejudice.

People are stupid

This is not a view confined to readers of the left leaning Guardian; the blog of the Telegraph has comments expressing similarly patronising views about their fellow citizens.

Comment on Guardian site saying that people are stupid

Comment by Stephenweaver

 

 

 

There are a set of normative, or moral, arguments against this view. We live in a democracy where anyone 18 or over has a voice at election time. Quite why we would trust people with the vote and yet not to contribute to some of the biggest questions facing our society is beyond me. Indeed, they are contributing anyway, in their conversations with family, down the pub and in the workplace. Just because it isn’t happening in a formally constituted space doesn’t mean it isn’t happening; consensus is being built by the same people that commenters label as stupid. The only way to stop it would be to live in a dictatorship with near total control over public conversations; recent evidence from the Middle East demonstrates that this isn’t a viable long term strategy.

However, all that is beside the point, because citizens both individually and collectively, aren’t stupid.  We see this every time we run public engagement processes, as does anyone else who demonstrates a modicum of thought and intelligence when they engage with citizens.

One clear example that is doing the rounds at the moment is that of the work that Participle and Swindon Borough Council have been doing with so called ‘problem families’. These families would fulfil the media stereotype in their ‘stupid’ life choices. However, some intelligent project design and reconfiguration of public services has saved significant sums of public money. It has also led to members of these families working with public service providers to support other families in similar situations to change their lives around, thus demonstrating that the state is as capable of proving people stupid as it is of helping them achieve their potential.

If anything, it is the intelligentsia and policy makers who are stupid for allowing their prejudice to blind them to what lies within all citizens when given the chance and power.

Mob rule

This view draws on opinion polls to raise the spectre of the mob; polls tell us that if left to their own devices the great British public would bring back hanging, we’d leave the EU, and all immigrants would be kicked out. Useful as they are, polls are a very blunt instrument though. They measure immediate reactions based on limited information and depend heavily on the wording of the question.

 

Guardian comment that engaging people will lead to mob ruleComment by Zeitgit

 

 

 

An on-going project run by IPPR demonstrates that public attitudes to immigration are more complex than standard surveys and polls suggest. In essence what IPPR did, in areas with a degree of inter-community tension, was create spaces for citizens to engage with the issues that really matter to them. Rather than ending up with extreme views on immigration policy being endorsed, the project showed that citizens don’t express mob emotion. Rather they develop policies that look very similar to those that our politicians have already implemented.

A well run citizen engagement process will give citizens time and space to engage with information and each other. Involved sensibly, citizens will always surprise the prejudiced policy maker with the nuance and subtlety of their views.

It’s too complex

This type comment is perhaps more nuanced than the sweeping ‘people are stupid’ point of view. However, it too is sheer nonsense.

Guardian complex that some issues are too complex for people.

Comment by HowardD

 

 

 

 

 

Our website is littered with examples where groups of ‘ordinary’ citizens engaged intelligently in topics as complex as tax and economic policy, nanotechnology and climate change, for example. In all of these they expressed views that surprised policy makers, and in the case of nanotechnology actually changed the direction of the scientific research.

Most of our politicians are no better informed than the average citizen about the state of the global economy, cutting edge science, or issues like climate change which mix science, economics and a range of other disciplines. So, why would we trust them to get such decisions ‘right’ and expect citizens to get them ‘wrong’?

Getting it right

This isn’t to say that designing processes, structures and institutions that allow citizens to reach their full potential is easy or cheap. It isn’t. This is why policy makers need to decide what the absolutely key issues are so that they can devote time, money and political capital in designing spaces and structures that will get the best from citizens give them real power, and therefore responsibility for getting things right.

The thing that makes it difficult to do these things? The prejudices of policy makers about citizens.

Simon Burall

Main image credit: e_monk

Images of comments: screen shots taken from Guardian site on 3 August 2011.

4 Responses to “There’s lots of prejudice and stupidity, but it isn’t from citizens”

  1. Garry Haywood (@_garrilla)
    August 5, 2011 at 9:10 am

    Although I didn’t imply that the public were stupid or incapable of participating in this #juryofthepeople I am sceptical of the process.

    This scepticism is not drawn from a patronising attitude to the ‘ordinary people’ – I’m one of them/us – but it does come from a lived experience of being a social campaigner at both the level of community and at big P politics for the past quarter of a century.

    On big matters of self-interest, which is what the ‘feral elite’ all about, I find that most ‘ordinary people’ that I encounter are mostly bound by a culture of self-interest themselves. Most people I have conversations with about paying cash to avoid VAT don’t see that these little things add up to one bad thing. Most people I know who run their own ‘private’ empires through freelance working would rather pay themselves a small salary and take the remainder in capital gains because it is tax efficient and then, most of the of ‘left’ leaning associates I know complain about the lack of fund available in their sector. Most of the ‘ordinary people’ that I encounter believe that its OK to steal a little time of work if they can get away with it. This doesn’t make them stupid, its makes them as self-interested as the next-person. This is why I’m sceptical. Its not a question of passing judgment on other people, simply an observational account of 3 decades of adulthood trying change things and realising that most people don’t want stuff to change.

    I’m always reminded of Joe the Plumber, the hard working self-employed tradesman that tackled Obama about high-wealth taxes. After a few weeks in the limelight it occurred to some hack to ask him how much he would lose. It turned out it wouldn’t effect him as he was several pay scales away from wealthy enough to endure these taxes. Asked why he was so vociferous on the matter he replied that he hoped one day to become that rich and wouldn’t want to be taxed at that rate. And while I disagree with approach, I know that he speaks for a lot of people I encounter in my *ordinary* life in Liverpool.

    I agree with you that participation frequently exposes that the ‘collective’ view is a complex one. Ironically, I believe the peoples jury on the ‘feral elite’ will be no different. Self-interest is a complex matter, do we need a peoples jury to tell us this?

  2. Simon Burall
    August 23, 2011 at 11:18 am

    I share your basic analysis that the vast majority of people act in their self-interest for the vast majority of time. The existence of inspirational leaders and individuals who manifestly don’t do this, Aung San Suu Kyi and Ghandi for example, or the countless examples of selfless heroism during times of war or crisis don’t invalidate your main point. In fact they go to show that self-interest is incredibly complex as you say.

    While I’m also not sure that a people’s jury is the right way forward, I am convinced that engaging citizens more in the complex trade-offs that are required in a modern society will help to surface some of the complexities of self-interest. It will help to highlight to an individual where their different self-interests are in conflict, it will help to identify common ground where it assumed there is none, and it will help to identify new solutions to problems which are assumed to be intractable.

    Just because people are self-interested isn’t a reason to cut them out of decision-making; and it also doesn’t, as you say, make them stupid. Indeed it is because people demonstrate such complexity of self-interest that we must involve them more.

  3. March 29, 2014 at 9:40 pm

    I can’t say I have read the guardian article but I would say most people are tuned off my politics. Leaders such as Ghandi evoked hope, a person with hope is not going to be motivated to get involved. Angry or stupid people become such people because they feel they have no power.

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