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Published on April 11, 2011

How to waste public funds and alienate voters

By Edward Andersson

Edward Andersson is European Associate for Involve and an established expert on methods of participatory decision making. He set up – one of Europe’s leading public engagement sites, and has advised a number of organisations on public engagement strategies, including the Home Office, the European Commission, the OECD, WHO Europe, UNDP Turkey and numerous Local Authorities and Health Trusts.

Sign with text "Dead End" -Creative Commons (Attribution, non-commercial) by pblairCraig Newmark the Founder of Craigslist has a leadership principle that I subscribe to; he claims that often the most important thing an organisation can do is to ‘Get out of the way’. The Craigslist web design encapsulates this, ugly perhaps, but intensely functional. In web design it is easy for ambitious and well-meaning designers to create sites which overcomplicate things.

This principle is one Government would sometimes do well to listen to. I’ve begun to ask myself, if Doctors have their Hippocratic Oath; a principle of doing no harm –should engagement practitioners not have the same?

Because, it’s not just more, but better engagement that we need. Quality counts in engagement. This isn’t a new argument, yet government agencies and authorities often continue to act as if numbers are what matter.

Bums on seats are not the measure of success. If this was the case then the Post Office Closure Consultations should have been a spectacular success, when in fact they probably did a lot of damage to people’s faith in government consultation across the board.

The stakes are high in the coming years; good engagement will be crucial, and bad engagement will be devastating. In my view badly designed engagement is a fantastic way to waste money and turn relationships with stakeholders and citizens sour as an added bonus.

So how do we spot when we are wasting time and money? My experience tells me that the following situations are tell-tale signs of bad engagement:

1.       When the answer doesn’t matter –the decision has already been made, the people you are asking can’t have an influence on the matter, or the decision is irrelevant to them.

2.       When you already know the answer–it is a technical question with a clear answer, participant comments will add nothing. However, before you stop engaging altogether remind yourself of Rumsfeld’s famous ‘unknown unknowns’. Often the greatest benefit of engagement can be the vital information the public has that you didn’t realise that you needed.

3.       When you don’t want to know the answer –engaging under the assumption that you’ll get a particular response or outcome (the one you’ve already decided you want) or, even worse, to convince participants of what you’re proposing is very dangerous and can backfire spectacularly.

4.       When the people you are asking don’t know the answer – it can be dangerous to ask people about issues they know little about. In the government spending challenge the suggestions from civil servants were stronger than from members of the public;  largely because the  former group was in a better position to answer knowledgeably. Citizens can (and should) discuss difficult issues, but they need support and information to do so.

5.       When people don’t care what the answer is –Some issues are not ones that people want to engage on. There are other ways of gathering data then engagement and consultation, for example monitoring and straight up research which might be a better use of your money and people’s time.

So in summary, ask questions that matter, of the right people and be honest about what you are willing to change and what is set in stone. Oh, and be prepared to get out of the way if need be.


Picture Creative Commons by pblair

16 Responses to “How to waste public funds and alienate voters”

  1. Thom
    April 11, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    Would agree with most of your points, Ed. Although, alternatively I would offer that when point 4) is a problem, and it often can be, but the answer does matter, and you don’t already know the answer, isn’t a serious aspect of the engagement process not taking the time to set the context and provide the learning so that everyone can hope to participate?

    • Edward Andersson
      April 11, 2011 at 2:19 pm

      Thom, that is an important point that I could have (perhaps even should have) made in my blog.

      Participants not knowing much about a topic isn’t a ‘get out of consultation free’ card. In fact, as you pointed out, getting an informed opinion can often be vital in many policy areas. However it is vital that people are adequately supported to do this; simply asking them to respond to complex issues without enough information and time to reflect risks getting half baked responses.

      Of course this isn’t a problem just for the public; experts are just as prone to make bad decisions without good information and time to think.

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. April 11, 2011 at 3:26 pm

    Nice blog.

    Totally agree that you shouldn’t ask if you’re not planning on listening to the answer! See ‘listen and learn’ here:

    There are different kinds of ‘answers’ that people could be looking for and wanting to give.

    There’s expertise. Not just technical / professional expertise, but including expertise in ‘being me’ – for example, what it’s like to be a single parent in Hackney, or someone living with a mobility disability in rural Gloucestershire.

    There’s information. Sometimes engagement can be a way of finding out data which is unavailable or too expensive to find out in other ways. Like which bits of a river people actually swim in, or what a the products were which were manufactured on a site fifty years ago.

    Agree that sometimes people need time, information and ‘deliberation’ to get to a point where they can provide answers which satisfy them and are useful or meaningful to the body which is asking the questions. Sciencewise-ERC has done some great work on ‘using experts’ to inform lay people about particular scientific areas in order that they can then join in with engagement which is aimed at influencing decision-making.

    IMHO, key to this is finding trusted / credible experts and iterating questions and answers: so the participants get to understand a bit, and then think about what they’d like to hear about next, understand a bit more, then ask for expertise about the next bit that they now realise they don’t understand…

    There’s opinion or preference. Broadly, when faced with a set of descriptions of the present/problem and the future/solution, which do you prefer and why. Who do you trust to put this right? What safeguards need to be in place for you to be happy with this?

    And there’s values. What do you value more, this or that? What do you most want from this decision? What are the fundamental principles which we should base our decision on?

    • Edward Andersson
      April 11, 2011 at 3:37 pm

      Hi Penny, that’s a great breakdown of what I simplistically referred to as ‘answers’. The things about credible experts is very important as well. Credibility for me is both about ‘actual’ expertise and impartiality and the perceptions of the public.
      Glad you mentioned the work of Sciencewise. Here’s the link for those who are interested:

  3. April 14, 2011 at 7:30 pm


    Great questions, and really important to get out of the way. (This is one of the reasons why I like Open Space so much.)

    And we have discussed – most complementary to my questions published in the Guardian last week:

    • Edward Andersson
      April 14, 2011 at 7:32 pm

      Indeed. Your questions would be good included at the start of any government consultation, complete with phone numbers to call if citizens are unhappy -much like the ‘How’s my driving?’ signs we see on vans nowadays…

  4. April 18, 2011 at 9:24 am

    All good stuff.
    How much time spent ‘fire-fighting’ by comms officers could be saved if the public had already bought into at least one option before the consultation became formal? In other words pre-consultation through the auspices of hyper-local, community web sites. Further ramblings at:

    • Edward Andersson
      April 18, 2011 at 2:16 pm

      Thanks for sharing that article Jon. Yes, a big problem with present day consultation is the way it often happens at the wrong time and if I get annoyed as a professional I can only imagine what it is like for citizens on the receiving end of the consultation!

      It takes a brave person to ask for feedback on half-baked ideas; but that is the time when the feedback can make a difference.

  5. April 18, 2011 at 2:30 pm

    Good discussion.

    Engagement with stakeholders / relevant publics before options are developed can be done elegantly and without need for too much bravery if engagement is planned in.

    Rather than seeking “feedback on half-baked ideas”, reframe as collaboration in developing options. All parties (stakeholders, public, ‘problem holder’) can enter discussion with an open mind (not an empty one) and work together to develop options and even to develop criteria for assessing options.

    Critical thing is for those running the process to be clear about “what’s up for grabs” at each stage: what’s decided (e.g. overall objective), what’s negotiable (e.g. criteria which need to be met) and what’s open (e.g. any option you can come up with which meets the criteria and would lead to the overall objective being met).

    See work done by the Environment Agency and their technical and engagement contractors at Medmerry, for example.

    (Transparency: I was one of the engagement practitioners, working with Dialogue by Design.)

    • Edward Andersson
      April 18, 2011 at 3:12 pm

      I should have put quotation marks around ‘half baked’ in my response above. To take the metaphor to its conclusion the correct time for asking questions about the cake is at the ‘recipe’ stage, and not the ‘what colour frosting would you like?’ stage.

      Good points about the need to be clear on the scope for change, and thank you for the link.

  6. April 22, 2011 at 6:49 pm

    Good post!

    The International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) has created a set of Core Values and a Code of Ethics for public engagement practitioners. I blogged about them here: The Ethics of Public Participation

    Full disclosure: I serve on the Board of IAP2 USA.

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