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The relationship between government and citizens is changing radically. The government needs to start developing better infrastructures for citizen participation and move away from one-off policy engagement processes.
In the slower month of August I’ve been reflecting on the work that Involve has done over the past couple of years. This has made me ask myself how we can get government to think about public engagement in a very different way, specifically how to move government from one-off policy engagement processes to a position where it maintains a much more continuous level of conversation with citizens about strategic or challenging policy areas.
This crystalised for me as I wrote a quick blog about the government’s recent decision to establish and independent inquiry into the August riots. These riots are not a one off, they are part of a long line of community disaffection and disconnection from power erupting into violence. As the blog concludes, a one-off inquiry, however well intentioned an implemented will do nothing to ensure that future communities and governments are any better connected,
… nothing will change and we will be doomed to repeat a cycle of crisis followed by calls for inquiries into political disconnect, followed by ineffectual commissions, panels and inquiries, a lack of action and then yet more crisis.
We recently did some work for the Department of Health exploring how, with the closure of the Human Genetics Commission, the Department will be able to maintain an open, transparent and ongoing dialogue with the public about developments in the science of human genetics and their implications for patients, healthcare and society as a whole. My personal observation from our research and interviews would be that it is going to be very difficult without political will combined with the development of carefully thought through institutional structures and processes. The problem for the Department will be how it can move from identifying an emerging issue on which it needs to engage, towards a structure which will allow citizens to engage in an ongoing way to help identify emerging issues together. In an area as fraught as human genetic science anything less than continuous engagement risks eroding public trust that the government is doing the right thing.
My final example relates to the challenge of developing a meaningful dialogue with the British taxpayer about foreign aid. David Cameron proposed MyAid, a process by which the British public would vote on development projects to influence aid spending. The aim of MyAid would be to help promote better understanding about how our aid budget is spent. I blogged at the time about why I thought it was a bad idea and how it could be improved. Looking back at the blog I realise that what I am proposing at the end is an infrastructure for continuous engagement.
Suggesting that government develops infrastructure for citizen engagement goes against all that the Big Society is supposed to be promoting and this editorial risks being seen as irrelevant to many in government. However, I’d argue that even if government did get out of the way and leave things to citizens in a Big Society sort of way, it would still need to find ways to listen to and engage with citizens groups if only too aggregate preferences and target funding effectively. The changing nature of the world is requiring government to develop a different relationship with citizens. The question is how it can best do this.
We’d love to hear your thoughts about how you think government can be supported to establish effective ways to develop more continuous engagement with citizens. We’d be even more interested in hearing where you think government, whether local or national, is already doing it.