Published on November 20, 2012

Politics, public engagement and mob rule

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is a Senior Associate of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

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


4 Responses to “Politics, public engagement and mob rule”

  1. November 26, 2012 at 9:47 am

    My half-answer has tended to be that politicians are better at values, and civil servants (and their stakeholders) at solutions. The trouble in policymaking and political debate often comes when politicians lack the courage to defend policies in terms of ideology, or when they leap to simple practical solutions to more deep-seated issues (the current crop of ministers is particularly guilty of this, I’d argue).

    I was interested in Kelvin Hopkins’ point at PASC, which got me wondering how the political machines of the parties can mesh with the civil service policymaking machine, and whether by the two doing different things (arguing about values face to face, vs testing and refining solutions respectively), we might get to a happier place where public deliberation can happen, and the process as a whole gets the input, critical appraisal and validation it needs. I think that’s probably not the kind of quality deliberation you see in a weekend citizens jury, but it’s almost certainly more profound than the forms of typing words into boxes in webpages which currently pass for engaging citizen and business audiences with policy.

    And I’m aware of the irony of that, as I type these words into boxes…

  2. Simon Burall
    November 26, 2012 at 11:50 am


    Thanks for this. I think your answer gets to the heart of where I am just not sure. My fear is that separating the values conversation from the solution conversation is the cause of much of the problems of politics today.

    We have solutions, (wind farms, nuclear power stations, GM crops, a special relationship with the US) which are imposed (people feel) in the absence of the values conversation. Moving the values conversation to a black and white public, political argument actually alienates people – as our Pathways* work shows.

    We know that engaging the public in a more deliberative conversation about values and futures is productive and can lead to policy solutions (which may come from the public, or may come from the policy-makers reflecting on the public deliberation) which go more with the grain of public sentiment.

    But my fear is that this risks turning the political business of thinking about what our country should look like into a managerial form of public engagement, rather than the political discussion that Kelvin Hopkins was worried gets lost.

    Hmm, I fear I may be turning a bit introspective. But would love to know what others think.

    * (I know you know this one, but just hoping someone else who doesn’t will stumble across it and see if for the thing of beauty it is!)

  3. November 26, 2012 at 12:25 pm

    Agree with your first point Simon, about limited time meaning one is inclined to spout off about what you think an MP is there to change on your behalf and so not indicative of deliberative processes. But then again reading the comment boards on websites also makes one pause for thought in that regard too!!

    Re the second, I have been wondering this too for a while – regarding a referendum on Europe. I suppose the referendum is the ultimate public engagement on such tricky issues and I can see why people get nervous about it.

    I wonder if the lack of vision we have about ourselves and our changed place in the world doesn’t help. When we were an imperialist power it is easy, now we are just one of many little countries scurrying about doing our thang, it isn’t quite the same.

    Would we benefit from a more explicit discussion about what sort of country we are, what is our relationship with other countries, etc etc? I think politicians duck this as it is tricky to do, and the ‘pleasing all the people all the time’ thing which underpins elections means the blander their communication gets the better for them, but the worse for us and for democracy.

    Also if politicians were much more explicit about the values and rational for their own perspectives on such things as the ‘Special Relationship’ or the membership of the EU, then would help is all understand where we fit and contribute properly? One of the problems for me is that there appears to be very poor communication about this at all levels.

    However, in reality, isn’t the Special Relationship question surely a ‘solutions’ question just the same? Ie ‘this is the relationship we have, this is what’s in the way of it continuing, this is what we gain and this is what we may have to give up if we (a) continue and (b) change along the lines of x or y, and this is why its important.

    But, diplomatically, I don’t see that many of these are things which perhaps could and should see the cold light of day – perhaps relationships between countries are as nuanced and delicate as personal ones. Is it a bit like saying why did you like your wife, and the pros and cons of staying married? What would be achieved by picking it apart and talking about what she looked like then and now, the fact that her jokes were funny, then the fact that they aren’t quite as funny now and she’s got fat, and you are a bit bored and fancy a change, but don’t because it’s a bit too much hassle and costly, and you probably still love her anyway etc etc!? Would the very fact of such scrutiny put the person off you anyway and make the exercise self-defeating!?

    I’m burbling, sorry!!

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