A few reflections on the Public Administration Select Committee’s evidence session on Public Engagement.
So, I survived my grilling by the Public Administration Select Committee. The inquiry was framed around the government’s Open Policy Making proposals, focusing specifically on public engagement. I was in front of the committee with Mike Bracken, Head of the Government Digital Service and Nigel Shadbolt, Professor of Computer Science at the University of Southampton and co-Director of the Open Data Institute.
The full session, which is 75 mins or so long, can be seen here. We had a very diverse set of questions thrown at us, but I wanted to focus on just two different exchanges which highlighted for me how difficult it is to talk to elected politicians, in particular, about public engagement. They also exposed areas where I think my own thinking has to develop further.
Paul Flynn MP, focused very much on his fears that engaging the public would lead to mob rule, that the public can’t be trusted and we’d see capital punishment brought back if we asked them. My examples of where deliberative processes have resulted in much more reasoned responses than the “flog ‘em and hang ‘em” stereotype might suggest fell on deaf ears. I think there were two reasons for this.
Firstly, I’m not sure that Paul Flynn was much in the market for changing his view. Secondly, I think that many politicians forget that they are in a unique position in our society. Their role is a public one. It’s a role that, when the public find out that they have an MP in front of them, they will want to engage in a political conversation, complaining about government policy, or this or that element of public services. But the nature of their role is also that they are spread very thinly, they don’t have time to engage deeply and so what they hear are definite opinions from the public which will often be against something.
This is the lens that I suspect many use when they hear the terms public engagement. Many have limited experience of more deliberative approaches to public engagement. They don’t see the effect of giving members of the public time and space to engage with their peers and with evidence and experts. They don’t see the impact that this can have on an initial black and white view on the world.
This isn’t about manipulating views, or selling a particular political idea; authentic public engagement can lead to deeper thought and genuine changes in perspective. I mentioned this IPPR research on immigration as one example where this is the case, but could also have mentioned the research contained in this blog post about crime and Police and Crime Commissioners, and many more cases besides.
Paul Flynn focused on the most controversial areas of public policy such as drugs policy and capital punishment, appearing to dismiss as uninteresting and unhelpful public engagement in equally controversial but less high profile areas of public policy, such as geoengineering and synthetic biology, for example.
I was mystified by this and wonder whether it relates to the last set of questions asked by Kelvin Hopkins MP in which he raised concerns about whether public engagement removes politics and political ideology from business of democracy and government. I think I have half an answer, but I don’t think it’s totally convincing.
Kelvin Hopkin’s point was that political parties exist to put different models for how the country should be run, and that voters can then vote for the model, or political ideology, they like the most. The problem with this view is that there are many areas of public policy where political ideology provides little guide to how to take a decision, how to spend limited public money on building flood defences, for example, or the moral framework within which a technology such as synthetic biology should be allowed to grow and flourish.
This half answer doesn’t feel like enough though. The Chair of the Committee, Bernard Jenkin MP, asked me how the public might be engaged in much bigger, strategic issues such as the extent to which we should continue the special relationship with the US vs Europe, for example. I had an answer, but not tackling the heart of where I felt his question lay. I wonder whether it is because this type of decision is inherently political and I don’t have an adequate framework within which to develop methodologies for engaging the public effectively in such political arenas.
Or maybe these are issues in which the public should not be engaged? What do you think?
Picture Credit: nettsu