Published on May 8, 2014

Citizen Cobra: Public voice at times of crisis

By Amy Pollard

Dr Amy Pollard is Deputy Director at Involve. She has over 10 years experience working on accountability, policy and power, and a passion for using effective public engagement to drive positive change.

Cobra image

The historic received wisdom amongst participation experts has been that quality engagement with the public is incompatible with government in crisis mode.  Quality participation processes need a long lead-in for planning, and when under pressure governments want and need to get on with making quick decisions and avoid getting ‘slowed down’ by citizen engagement.

I think it’s time to revisit this wisdom, and explore whether it might be possible to overcome some of the challenges and bring meaningful citizen voice to decisions that are being made fast; when events happen suddenly and the status quo is thrown up in the air.

Crisis is the new normal

There is a growing consensus amongst policy makers, economists, academics and other commentators that we are likely to see an increased number of crises in the coming decades.  As we feel the effects of climate change, continue to deal with the fall out of the financial crisis and adapt to an era of increasing uncertainty and turbulence, crisis has become ‘the new normal’.  With interconnections across our economy, society, politics and environment, it is likely that many of these crises may not be easily ‘contained’, that they will challenge government’s departmental boundaries (amongst many other things) – and even the efficacy of government itself.

If crisis is an increasingly important part of the way our country and our world takes shape; and citizens have limited scope for effectively engaging at moments of crisis, then citizens will become locked-out of decision-making when it matter most.  If participation experts don’t find a way to develop quality public engagement processes that can work in a crisis, then we can expect to see citizen voice relegated to the backwaters of policymaking – only involved when issues are predictable, timetabled and comparatively petty.  Meanwhile, we will see the gulf of mistrust between the public and elites grow to levels that may constitute a crisis in themselves.

Don’t squander a good crisis

Experts are by definition rooted in the status-quo, which gives them their legitimacy and status.  If experts are the only people involved in decision-making at moments of crisis, we can expect a bias towards finding ways to maintain the status quo and return to ‘business as usual’.  It might be that citizen involvement might help us to use crisis as an opportunity to tackle deeper, structural problems – which would prevent such crises occurring in the first place rather than simply patching up the existing system.

Variants of this idea are bubbling elsewhere.  In the international development and sustainability sector, the excellent Alex Evans and Duncan Green have been arguing that we need to start using crises strategically, to unblock the deadlocked politics around carbon emissions and use those brief moments when the status quo is disrupted to take a step-change forward.  They have argued that advocacy teams should learn from the humanitarian sector and get their planning and logistics systems running like clockwork in advance, so that they are ready to move when a crisis hits.

Whatever your politics and values, there seems little doubt that government hasn’t yet figured out its crisis-mode very well.  My hypothesis is that one of the reasons that government and other elites are failing to lead adequately at moments of crisis is that they are trapped in a bind of arrogance and insecurity.  On the one hand, they recognise the opportunity to show strong leadership and feel this is their chance to shine; on the other they fear that they don’t have enough of a mandate to think big when the cards get thrown up in the air.  There are often a range of moral questions in play which may not have been previously rehearsed and tested – and the safe option is to stay within precedents.

Citizen Cobra

I’m working on an idea to see whether there’s a way to tie these challenges and opportunities together, and find a way to build effective public engagement at moments of crisis.  It’s working title is Citizen Cobra, named after the government’s emergency committee.  If this connects with any projects you are working on or if you have thoughts, suggestions for reading, or people to talk to please do get in touch @AmyRPollard.


5 Responses to “Citizen Cobra: Public voice at times of crisis”

  1. May 8, 2014 at 5:49 pm

    This is an interesting point that reminds me of discussions in the area of ‘resilience’ – where resilient communities can be seen not just in terms of their ability to ‘bounce back’ from a crisis, but potentially to make use of opportunities to ‘spring forward’ more rapidly. When I worked at DECC with the social science expert panel I managed there, Simin Davoudi from Newcastle was strong on that concept so probably worthwhile talking to her.

    I agree with the call to use crises more strategically – but in order to do so one needs to see policy more strategically. Government departments are often not doing that, and so if they aren’t it makes it hard for citizens to engage in anything but a reactive way. And in a sense there’s something about the idea of involving citizens at this level that sort of undermines the point of having a representative democracy – aren’t we electing people to turn their resources to address exactly these kinds of problems that we as citizens simply can’t address on account of the spatial and temporal scale and resources required? I don’t think there are simple answers here – it is something that deeply concerns us at UCL STEaPP where we want to understand better the relationship between expert knowledge communities, decision-makers and publics of different kinds, and what can be seen as ‘working well’ in this context. We work with the Red Cross on crises as well as government on the long-cycle non-crisis day to day of decision-making.

    We’re also running sessions as part of the forthcoming Understanding Risk conference run by the World Bank – at my session on the 1 July Irina Rafliana will present. She works on disaster preparedness with communities in Indonesia. Maybe a non-UK/developing society context might shed some valuable light on the role of ‘ordinary citizens’ in how to deal with their input in crisis situations in the UK?

    One important issue here is ‘who defines a crisis’? You could say we are having a crisis of youth unemployment but it’s not on the COBR agenda. Likewise flooding in the south west might be more likely to be seen as a crisis than say in the Thames Estuary. Is there a way – like 38 Degrees do – to poll communities to see if they think something is a crisis? That could be one good start to reframing things…

  2. Amy Pollard
    Amy Pollard
    May 9, 2014 at 11:45 am

    Thanks very much indeed for this Adam – lots of really useful and interesting points. I’ll definitely follow up these leads as I start developing the thinking here, and will see if I’m free on 1st July.

    I think the ‘who defines a crisis’ question is really key. I wonder if it might be quite an interesting thing to get public voice on in itself (ie. perhaps public voice could be the trigger for when something gets the label of ‘crisis’ in government).

    Can I ask what you mean by using policy strategically? Isn’t policy supposed to be strategic almost by definition?

  3. May 11, 2014 at 10:38 am

    Hi Amy
    Thought provoking, relevant and timely. No doubt crises will grow for the reasons you give (and more) and that thinking ahead is critical. But I do worry that you present ‘government’ in quite a monolithic way as if it thinks and acts as one; and also that the crisis is deeper than those provoked by external shocks to an otherwise content polity; some would argue that there is a crisis of legitimacy over the nature of the State itself and the power/politics that define it’s relationship (or lack thereof) with citizens. If we don’t recognise that and reflect it in our language I worry that we fall into quite a technocratic conversation that doesn’t get to grips with those challenges.
    The Open Government Partnership (OGP) is the latest and most interesting attempt to refashion that relationship and has much to it’s credit but there are clear signs that old habits die very hard indeed. The Independent Reporting Mechanism of the OGP found recently that some Governments were instrumentalising their membership, lauding it externally but closing down domestic civic space ( while at the OGP Regional Meeting in Dublin last week many civil society voices complained that dialogue was only conducted as a tick box or one off exercise for compliance rather than a longer term meaningful dialogue. The New Deal for Engagement with Fragile States, itself a citizen-state project, has experienced similar dynamics, while some Governments have started to actively push back against any notion of citizen participation in governance in the post 2015 agenda (
    So surely words like “engagement” need replacing with phrases like “participatory policy making” and the like to be clear about what we mean, while our discourse might also be deepened to reflect power & politics – which is where I think you were hinting when you talked about ‘arrogance and insecurity’. It frequently doesn’t in favour of technical phrases instead, like this example
    Anyway, thanks for the post – and good luck with the thinking!

  4. Amy Pollard
    May 14, 2014 at 2:01 pm

    Thanks very much indeed Chris. It’s funny, a large part of my PhD was about exploring the internal contradictions of government and yet as you point out it’s very easy to slip into! Thank you also for making the OGP connection – I hadn’t thought about how those threads might link together, but they clearly do. Many thanks for taking the time to comment.

  5. July 8, 2014 at 2:54 pm

    Great piece and exchange, thank you. Paradoxically, the revolutions of our time can be seen as attempts to create a ‘normal’ society, part of the power also behind the ‘Occupy movement’. See for a now ancient stab at this,

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