The new government is keen to bring the public on board with its spending cuts. Lord Lawson thinks this is just a PR ploy – is he right?

The Treasury has taken a major step forward in the transparency agenda and released data from its Coins (Combined Online Information System) database containing details of public spending across Whitehall. At the same time the Chancellor has stated his intention to widely engage the public to help him decide which services to cut. But what role can the public really play in helping government decide what stays and what gets the chop?

The phrase “public engagement” has throughout the previous Labour Government’s term been synonymous with public influence over decisions – this was the crux of its empowerment agenda. But the reality is that there are very few public engagement processes where you can measure, quantify, or even demonstrate the influence of the public. This is largely because decision-centric models of how government works simply aren’t accurate. Decisions can rarely be dissected post-hoc to demonstrate how each party involved influenced the various aspects. Governments always operate in conditions of uncertainty and are often unclear themselves about the parameters or times scales of a decision. This means that there is a continual reframing of the nature of any decision – the problem to be solved, the possible solutions, and the future consequences.

This lack of certainty is greatest in the early stages of policy development; often the time when the public’s views can be most useful in clarifying the nature of the problem. This is in part why so many public engagement processes are often either unclear about what’s up for grabs or take place just before a policy announcement when there is little scope for change.

The Government’s Big Society perhaps offers a different promise to the previous administration’s approach. As we’ve seen with the Coins data, civil society was quickly able to reorganise the highly complex data into accessible formats for people with little expertise. The aim of releasing the data is not to help the public influence a particular government decision, but rather to let civil society use the data to define the questions or problems that need solving and organise to find solutions.

The key point is that the Big Society doesn’t necessarily see its final end as influencing government. The role of the state is to provide the platforms and tools for civil society to define its own ends. Rather than top-down public engagement processes in which the state defines the parameters, the Big Society relinquishes state control and offers engagement on civil society’s terms. This approach can influence government in many ways from giving pressure groups ammunition to lobby government to changing the terms of debate on an issue and allowing civil society to reframe old problems. The Big Society offers a move away from the state-centric approach to public engagement. So, what does this mean for the Chancellors consultation on cuts?

Consultation has never been about referendum. Consultation is rather an opportunity for government to ask whether they’ve framed the problem in the right way, if they’ve identified all possible courses of action, and what the future consequences might be. And, consultation is often as much about government letting the public know what it’s doing at an early stage and putting the feelers out and avoid another poll tax style disaster.

Lord Lawson is wrong to claim the Chancellors announcement as simply a public relations ploy because his argument is premised on the previous government’s model of public engagement. Lawson’s argument offers us a false dichotomy between influence on the one hand and PR on the other. But, if we accept the flaws in the previous government’s decision-centric, statist model of public engagement, we can move beyond Lawson’s crude dichotomy and begin to look in more nuanced terms about how citizens and civil society can engage with government on their own terms. This is the promise of the Big Society. The Chancellor’s consultation on spending cuts will be the first big test of whether this promise holds.

Laurie Waller