Myth 4: Citizen power is a floodgate we should avoid at all costs

There is a deep running fear of citizens in parts of government. Citizens are often seen as a baying mob or unruly mass. Often the metaphor that springs to mind for civil servants is that of a tidal wave of criticism and scorn, which will inevitably come crashing down if the ‘floodgates’ of active citizens are ever opened. This is an argument often levelled against open data or freedom of information initiatives. Many civil servants have had negative experiences of active citizens. In a top-down decision-making system, engagement is limited and often frustrating for both citizens and civil servants. Often the way we engage today, through consultation documents and public meetings, discourages participation from all but the most determined (and often angry). Typical public meetings often create ‘difficult’ participants by bringing in self-selecting contributors, encouraging combative behaviour and fostering conflict. Citizens feel like Arthur Dent in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, who is faced with ridiculous obstacles to having a say on a local planning decision, including the famous ‘beware of the leopard’ sign.

The result is a body of citizens that is disillusioned, cynical and adversarial, making the life of consultation officers miserable. Many civil servants expect that the unengaged will act the same way and prefer to act as if they are under siege, pulling up the drawbridge to keep citizens out. However, what many civil servants find once they engage at a deeper level is that the experience can be rewarding and even enjoyable. Most people are polite and constructive if their engagement is framed in the right way – people cite ‘wanting to make a difference’ as the key reason for getting involved in local decision-making. Examples of failure and discussions getting out of hand show what happens when government tries to be overly controlling. American Deliberative Theorist Matt Leighninger has quoted a citizen at a public meeting in Colorado, who said: “Look, we know you’re working hard for us, but what we’ve got here is a parent-child relationship between the government and the people. What we need is an adult-adult relationship.” 1 ; in short if you treat your participants like adults you’ll get adult responses.

We need to take responsibility for the situation. Rather than the metaphor of floodgates, we prefer to look at citizen engagement as a pan boiling over if left covered for too long. While a gut instinct might be to slam the lid down tight, this tends to make matters worse rather than giving citizens the chance to air grievances and let the steam dissipate. Given the right forms of engagement, citizens and officials can often move from a shouting match into more peaceful co-existence.

  • 1Matt Leighninger, “The Next Form of Democracy” (US: Vanderbilt University Press, 2006).