Myth 2: Citizens aren't up to it

Distrust of the capacity of citizens runs deep in governments. Edmund Burke said that a representative would betray his constituents if he (for it was always a he back then) were to sacrifice his superior judgement to public opinion. Henry Ford famously said: “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.” Everyone can point to cases where people don’t know what is best for them, and get caught up in mass hysteria: the sub-prime mortgages crisis shows what happens when people don’t act in their own best interests.

Of course, experts themselves are not immune to these problems. Experts can and do get it wrong, often with disastrous and expensive results. Numerous cases exist, from the Titanic to the trenches of the First World War and the Atlantis shuttle disaster, where those with expertise and power make mistakes and get caught up in ‘groupthink’. Groups are generally smarter than the sum of individual intelligences. However, when a group is too alike, it can make less intelligent decisions that the individuals involved would have made on their own. For example, few experts accurately predicted the economic crisis of 2008. When asked why, a professor responded: “At every stage, someone was relying on somebody else and everyone thought they were doing the right thing.” 1

But citizens have expertise that professionals often do not, including knowledge about the impact of services and decisions on service users. Who knows more about local needs and conditions than local people themselves? As our interviewee from Imagine Croydon said: “Children are the experts at giving the viewpoint of being children.” Even when the issues are technical, citizens can provide vital insight into public acceptance and ethics.

The opinions of citizens can also help test assumptions. Benevolent intent does not necessarily translate into success. For example, in many parts of the country, well-intended youth projects were set up by councils, only to be rarely used because they were not what young people wanted. The result of one Sciencewise Dialogue on wellbeing was that the Department of Health decided not to run an expensive outreach campaign because the citizens explained that it would not work. 2

  • 1A. Pierce, “The Queen asks why no one saw the credit crunch coming,” The Telegraph, 2008.
  • 2…] We all know of numerous examples of situations in which experts have created well-meant services that no one actually wants, wasting valuable resources and fostering distrust amongst people towards government (central and local) and services. We’re not suggesting replacing brain surgeons with volunteers or government with the whims of a focus group as cynics have mocked. Rather, we are emphasising the complementary expertise of professionals with years of learning and the lived experience and knowledge of those who use services first hand.