Published on December 11, 2012

Is Participation Opening Up? A reflection on 2012 from Involve

Participation Compass

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.

On many levels this has been a fantastic year for Involve. Winning the contract to run Sciencewise has not only transformed our finances and given us some much needed stability, more importantly it also gives us a real platform to work with government to bring citizens into the heart of decision-making.

As I reflect on 2012, I need to remember that the change in our own outlook isn’t necessarily mirrored by what is going on outside our doors, and I will do so below. But first, I want to highlight a few things that we have been pleased to be involved in over the past 12 months.

We continue to grapple with the challenge of how to engage citizens actively in dealing with climate change and have just completed a small project for the European Economic and Social Council (EESC). This identifies case studies where citizens and stakeholders have been involved at local, national and multi-national levels in deliberations about energy futures. The report, which will be out early in the New Year, is packed full of really interesting case studies from across Europe. It will complement our short review of the evidence about the impact that public deliberation can have on both the debate and citizen’s behaviour in response to climate change.

As our Pathways project demonstrated so clearly, it is at the local level that people most engage with government. Exploring ways to support better engagement with local government remains important to us. We were really pleased to work with Derbyshire, Cambridgeshire and Leicester City Councils on NESTA’s Creative Council’s project, supporting them in thinking through how public engagement will assist them to change the way they deliver public services. We also engaged fully with the Commission on the Future of Local Government, providing what we hope was a useful set of inputs to their deliberations.
We were really pleased to be involved in a project to engage the public across England in a deliberation about the future of the library service. This was work commissioned by the Arts Council England and will feed into their work to develop a strategy for the development of this vital public service.

Finally, we felt honoured to be asked to coordinate theUK Civil Society Network on the Open Government Partnership. This is an agreement between 58 countries (currently), who have signed up to a series of commitments about access to information, better citizen participation, anti-corruption and open data. Cabinet Office civil servants and UK civil society are currently co-producing a shared national action plan for joint submission to the minister responsible, Francis Maude. This is an exciting, and challenging, attempt at developing a different way of opening up policy making – in this case, and at the risk of appearing in Private Eye, on the policy about open policy making.

While I’m proud of the achievements of the whole Involve team, and excited about our opportunities for next year, we are acutely aware that the effects of the financial crisis continue to bite. Pressures on budgets are severe and (beyond the cuts to front line services that have the most immediate and obvious impact) the risk is that it is engagement with the public that gets cut first.

The recent changes to the Cabinet Office Guidelines on Consultation, while having some positive elements, risk exacerbating this as Edward Andersson recently discussed . Open policy making, which is part of the government’s civil service reform plan, offers many opportunities for more citizen engagement. However, it brings with it significant risks that the loudest and most powerful have a deeper reach into government at the expense of ordinary citizens. This will be particularly true if government does not afford itself the time to think through who it needs to engage, and how it wants to engage them, and most importantly if it refuses to spend the money to do so effectively.

The learning from the previous phases of Sciencewise demonstrates that government needs significant support to build the capacity to engage effectively. I’m hoping that our work for this programme will help us to demonstrate this need for capacity building and long term commitment. Just as importantly, I hope that it will allow us to continue to build up the stock of case studies and examples demonstrating how effective public engagement can have significant and positive impacts on public policy and service delivery.

Our work on the OGP demonstrates how important this is. Large swathes of government remain to be convinced that being more open and more participative will lead to better results, and examples are thin on the ground.

And this is where we hope that our relaunch of the successful People and Participation site as the Participation Compass will be helpful. It will allow us to collect together these much needed case studies of the impact of public engagement. But we need help. Our work for the EESC highlighted just how much good work there is going on that we are unaware of. A key focus for Involve next year will be to get better at connecting practitioners from different traditions, working in different ways or in different countries. We want to do this so that we can build more peer support and learning in order to demonstrate to government that the old style of working behind closed doors and keeping citizens at further than arm’s length is no longer appropriate or effective.

Happy Christmas,

Simon Burall and Involve Staff

Image credit: Ludie Cochrane

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