Published on August 31, 2011

Developing an infrastructure for citizen engagement

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.

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Scaffolding, vpickeringThe relationship between government and citizens is changing radically. The government needs to start developing better infrastructures for citizen participation and move away from one-off policy engagement processes.

In the slower month of August I’ve been reflecting on the work that Involve has done over the past couple of years. This has made me ask myself how we can get government to think about public engagement in a very different way, specifically how to move government from one-off policy engagement processes to a position where it maintains a much more continuous level of conversation with citizens about strategic or challenging policy areas.

This crystalised for me as I wrote a quick blog about the government’s recent decision to establish and independent inquiry into the August riots. These riots are not a one off, they are part of a long line of community disaffection and disconnection from power erupting into violence. As the blog concludes, a one-off inquiry, however well intentioned an implemented will do nothing to ensure that future communities and governments are any better connected,

… nothing will change and we will be doomed to repeat a cycle of crisis followed by calls for inquiries into political disconnect, followed by ineffectual commissions, panels and inquiries, a lack of action and then yet more crisis.

We recently did some work for the Department of Health exploring how, with the closure of the Human Genetics Commission, the Department will be able to maintain an open, transparent and ongoing dialogue with the public about developments in the science of human genetics and their implications for patients, healthcare and society as a whole. My personal observation from our research and interviews would be that it is going to be very difficult without political will combined with the development of carefully thought through institutional structures and processes. The problem for the Department will be how it can move from identifying an emerging issue on which it needs to engage, towards a structure which will allow citizens to engage in an ongoing way to help identify emerging issues together. In an area as fraught as human genetic science anything less than continuous engagement risks eroding public trust that the government is doing the right thing.

My final example relates to the challenge of developing a meaningful dialogue with the British taxpayer about foreign aid. David Cameron proposed MyAid, a process by which the British public would vote on development projects to influence aid spending. The aim of MyAid would be to help promote better understanding about how our aid budget is spent. I blogged at the time about why I thought it was a bad idea and how it could be improved. Looking back at the blog I realise that what I am proposing at the end is an infrastructure for continuous engagement.

Suggesting that government develops infrastructure for citizen engagement goes against all that the Big Society is supposed to be promoting and this editorial risks being seen as irrelevant to many in government. However, I’d argue that even if government did get out of the way and leave things to citizens in a Big Society sort of way, it would still need to find ways to listen to and engage with citizens groups if only too aggregate preferences and target funding effectively. The changing nature of the world is requiring government to develop a different relationship with citizens. The question is how it can best do this.

We’d love to hear your thoughts about how you think government can be supported to establish effective ways to develop more continuous engagement with citizens. We’d be even more interested in hearing where you think government, whether local or national, is already doing it.

Image by vpickering

4 Responses to “Developing an infrastructure for citizen engagement”

  1. Prof. Joyce Tait
    August 31, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    Thanks Simon,

    I would support the ideas you are proposing, but suggest that there is not a ‘one-size fits all’ approach. My involvement with these issues has been mainly in contentious areas involving life sciences, so relevant to the HGC but much less to the recent riots. One of the biggest issues is who you choose to represent the public voice. We tend to assume that involving a spectrum of advocacy groups is a useful approach, but this is more appropriate where potential conflicts are interest based not ideological.

    I’ve sent you some papers I’ve written in this area in case you are interested. Cass Sunstein’s recent book, “Going to Extremes” is also very relevant.

    Yours, Joyce

  2. Lorna Ahlquist
    August 31, 2011 at 1:03 pm

    Great! Too right – have been saying this for years, and it would help get away from consultation exhaustion if we built in responsive feedback at all levels and used a lot of what we already have. Big task – need to sit down and unpick it and then show ways of doing it – then invest in the attitudinal and work practice changes that it would involve and removal of blockages to feedback loops. Great project for Involve to do this and come up with practical changes and anther toolkit – and there are lots of small easy ones that would make a massive difference.

    NHS in Scotland are looking at lots of feedback mechanisms using gadgets so the tide is running in the right direction – but ignoring some of the more basic ones. Councillors will need to learn that they are not elected then just do what they want for 4 years – that is a biggie where I am.

    Lets hear more on this!

    Best Lorna

  3. Thea Shahrokh
    September 16, 2011 at 12:50 pm

    I recently posted a blog for Involve (http://www.involve.org.uk//how-to-build-voluntary-sector-support-infrastructure/) on the work I am doing in Guyana to establish national infrastructure to support volunteer-involving organisations.

    There are a number of organisations in the UK that work directly to support public particpation in policy-making. There are organisations like Involve who indepently research best practice and practically support local and central government public participation processes. You also have similar organisations specific to young people like Participation Works. In addition, there are expert resource groups such as Sciencewise-ERC that guide and support public engagement in government policy relevant to science and technology. There are also lessons from the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement, and the Beacon’s of Public Engagement Scheme, both of which are related to higher education insititutions. Of particular interest is Involve’s work with NCCPE on embedding engagement (http://www.involve.org.uk//nccpe-embedding-engagement/).

    Perhaps a first step in supporting the government to think about how this sort of citizen engagement infrastructure would work, is to pool the unique knowledge and expertise of these organisations in some sort of umbrella group. This ‘group’ would preferably have support from government in the first instance, however, I think there is enough passion and drive in the sector to build on this idea from the bottom up.

    This body could then work initially to develop ideas around infrastructure for more conintuous engagement with citizens and to promote these to government. The longer-term aim would be for this same group to support the government in actually designing and implementing the engagement mechanisms and processes.

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