It’s now three weeks since I appeared in front of the Public Administration Select Committee as part of their inquiry into Public Engagement in Policy Making. As is always the way, I continue to think of better ways I could have answered their questions.
One exchange continues to rankle. If you’ve got the energy then at roughly 10:17:45 on video, Paul Flynn MP makes a series of statements dressed up as questions which boil down to the view that you can’t trust the public. I blogged about this straight after the event, but I wanted to pick-up on something that’s only just occurred to me.
Paul Flynn cites popular support for capital punishment and lack of support for ‘gypsy encampments’ as examples of why the public shouldn’t be involved in decision-making. He said, “if you decide that you are going to the majority of opinion you may be in office but you are not in power, there is some role for parliament to take decisions above popular prejudice.”
Aside from the somewhat distasteful spectacle of an elected politician appearing to despise the voters who elected him, this point of view is one we come across often. It is a significant challenge to change the culture of government so that it is one which is more open and engaging.
I made the point that asking the public a yes or no question is bound to generate black and white responses, with no shades of grey, let alone 50 (oh, yes, I’m up on popular culture).
I talked about the need for a very different style of leadership. We need to move away from the macho ‘follow me’ leadership which used to characterise politics, towards one where elected leaders identify strategic issues and hold open space for genuine public engagement and debate.
I highlighted IPPR’s work to engage the public on immigration issues, where knee jerk reactions might be expected, but much more thoughtful and nuanced views emerge as one example that public engagement doesn’t need to lead to mob rule.
But the more I thought about it the more I realised that we have a system of public engagement at the heart of the justice system already. It’s one that public engagement specialists seem to ignore, or forget. It’s one that has been at the heart of our system for at least 800 years. It is of course the jury system.
The more I reflect on this, the more remarkable it is that this isn’t one of our key examples of how the public can add value within our system of governance. In a much earlier post I called for a new infrastructure of public engagement, and here we have one, slap bang in one of the most contentious areas of public policy, crime, law and punishment. These are exactly the issues that Paul Flynn appears to reluctant to trust the public on, and yet we’ve been handing over the power to judge someone innocent or guilty for hundreds of years.
So, we can trust the public; we do trust the public. And we really must start doing so more often. But not in a simple way, providing simple questions with yes or no answers. The world is far too complicated for such questions to be relevant or meaningful. We need to start engaging the public in the full complexity of the world, opening up key public policy questions, not closing them down. The notion of an enlightened elite is outdated and outmoded. Bringing the public into the heart of the whole system is the only way our country can possibly navigate the complexity of the modern world.
Image credit: Southernfried