At first sight this seems like a fringe idea. How can the public possibly be involved in developing our national strategy? For them to do so would require them to engage with questions about foreign policy, national security, the budget and the way government operates, for example. Many would say this is beyond ordinary citizens.
This must be some idea punted out by a London based thinktank desperate for a few minutes of coverage before skittering on to the next headline grabbing topic, right?
Actually no. This is an idea from the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC), who have released a report today advocating deliberative polling in order to engage the public in the debate about national strategy. As PASC says in their press release:
Deliberative polling works by repeatedly asking sets of respondents the same questions on a particular issue. Before the set of questions is posed again, participants are presented with additional information and alternative arguments about the issue. The differences in the responses given each successive time the same questions are asked helps to inform an understanding of the factors that determine public views and opinion on a particular issue.
[…] respondents in a poll provide nuanced answers that engage in a meaningful way with issues of national strategic interest. […] the insight into the views and values of the public offered by deliberative polling would make an important contribution to National Strategy, and supports the conclusion of the Committee’s Strategic Thinking Report that “Government, and Parliament as a whole, need a deeper understanding both of how the public perceives our national interests and of what country the public aspires for the UK to be”.
This is a strong statement recognising the value that the public can add to a debate that has traditionally been seen as too complex for genuine engagement.
While I welcome it, I am wary of focusing on one kind of public engagement process as the answer to the challenge the UK faces in developing a coherent strategy for dealing with an increasingly complex and turbulent world. Deliberative polling is a powerful technique for better understanding public reactions to complex information, but it remains largely extractive. There are a wide variety of other processes that will allow government to open up the debate to a much wider variety of voices, to gather more information in areas of policy where government doesn’t have all of the answers, develop new networks where government action alone will be ineffective, and in the end for deepening the democratic accountability of those making decisions on our behalf.
At Involve, we’d be keen to work with the PASC and Government, along with other members of the UK OGP civil society network, to see if a commitment to use deliberative methods to engage the public on a national strategy might be included in the UK’s second open government action plan (a draft of which was published yesterday).
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