Published on March 29, 2016

Boaty McBoatface vs. a beach towel

By Sophie Blake

Sophie is Project Support Officer at Involve, working principally on NHS Citizen. She believes that all citizens should be able to play an active role in the decisions and processes that affect them.

BoatThere have been two cautionary tales in the news recently  for anyone thinking about opening a key decision up to the public. One that speaks of the perils of too much control over a process, and one of too little.

Following a national referendum, New Zealanders have voted to keep their current flag rather than replace it with a new design supported by the Prime Minister John Key. The result came as a bit of an anti-climax after a long process estimated to have cost about £12 million.

The decision to stick with the current flag appears, at least in part, to have been down to a lack of real choice. The referendum choice has been popularly characterised as a choice between something resembling a beach towel or a colonial relic (a reference to the Union Jack currently featured on the flag). The process had started with an open call for designs, resulting in over 10,000 submissions. Sure, some of these it’s hard to imagine hanging outside an embassy but there were also thousands of viable options.

Despite this open start, the public had little say in the biggest decision – whittling the thousands of entries down to four that would go to a first public vote. This task was undertaken by a committee appointed by the Prime Minister. The lack of any designers on the panel led many to question its expertise. After choosing four very similar designs the committee were forced to add a fifth in response to initial public feedback. When the referendum came round the most enthusiasm for the ‘great democratic exercise’ seemed to come from the government.

Over on the other side of the world, the British public is voting overwhelmingly to name a new Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) research vessel ‘Boaty McBoatface’. Although it wouldn’t have been so amusing, NERC could easily have avoided a lot of hand-wringing and the inevitable embarrassment of having to veto the public’s choice, by designing into the process a mechanism for rejecting deliberately inappropriate suggestions before they went to public vote.

It also should be noted that for most people the task of naming a multi-million pound research vessel doesn’t seem particularly pressing or serious and so is not likely to elicit a serious response. If NERC were asking for public input into what research it should fund you can be sure the type of engagement they would get would be different.

Both the above examples show how engagement that hasn’t been thought out can damage the reputation of public engagement as a whole. Whilst the New Zealand flag vote in its shallow choice and limited space for debate risks leaving the public feeling sceptical of engagement exercises, Boaty McBoatface lends fuel to arguments that the public can’t be trusted with important decisions (despite plenty of evidence to the contrary).

Our work has shown us time and again that when given opportunities to make informed decisions which will have real impact people take the task seriously, but the process allowing them to have their say must be well-thought out and the level of choice clear from the offset. To see how we would have started designing a process like these see Sarah’s recent blog.

 

Image credit: Tim Green, Flickr Creative Commons

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