I stumbled across a collection of web pages yesterday which prompted a few thoughts on one of the themes this blog often touches upon – participation.
First, this interesting article by Geoff Gallop, former premier of Western Australia, on the politics of public engagement.
It's well worth reading if only because its pretty rare to get the politician's perspective on what it is they want to achieve through public consultation and participation mechanisms (and how they chose a mechanism to deliver their desired ends).
He notes that there are many variations of "extra-parliamentary" activity, with different options being more useful at different points not just throughout the policy-making process but also when there are different levels of public consciousness about a given issue.
Another of the lessons, which you would think should be pretty well learned by now, is to be clear at the start about what you are involving the public in. Gallop describes one example of participation:
"Right through the process the Government made it clear that it would follow up on the recommended actions from the forum. Indeed representatives from the dialogue process joined with others from community, industry and government to form an Implementation Team."
"For us, public engagement is about providing mechanisms and structures for the public to have their voice heard and affect decision-making. It is partly about transparency and the provision of information, as much as it is about hearing public opinion. It operates across a whole spectrum ranging from consultation through to empowerment where Government gives up control totally."
He also made the interesting distinction between local and national participation. Perhaps local participation is more of the community volunteering Big Society kind of activity, while at a national level it tends towards involvement in policy development. But as he notes: "The challenge for the Government is how it builds a sense of ownership and at least consensus around those national decisions that will lead to local level acceptance."
A more detailed paper on public engagement in national issues, written by Involve, is also critical of past habits of choosing the wrong engagement mechanism at the wrong time.
"Engagement of the public in national decision-making has traditionally been a reactive process, commissioned by Government as a result of public dissatisfaction or the failure of a national policy. Engagement occurred late in the policy cycle and was primarily a way of rebuilding trust in a discredited decision-making process."
Moving the engagement "upstream" is described as important because "engaging with the public in this way is an attempt to shape better policy decisions and to prevent the loss of public trust, rather than trying to rebuild it after policy failure".
One of the points the paper makes about earlier, broader consultation is this:
"Enabling the public and stakeholders to set the frame and terms of debate whenever possible will further demonstrate a commitment to the Big Society. This will help avoid debates and deliberative processes being too tightly framed on particular risks or outcomes that are predefined by particular stakeholders."
If the report is to be believed – and there is a more complete and interesting review of the issues by David Wilcox – then the meeting in Stockport ran into difficulties because of the lack of clarity around what was expected from it.
I don't suppose the conflict between debates which are too tightly framed and those which lack focus quite reaches the level of a paradox, but it is still a challenge to be managed.
David also makes the interesting point that a previous meeting in London may not have experienced the same problems because many people would have known each other "from the social media/innovation circuit".
This sensible observation points to the importance of considering the shared assumptions (or lack thereof) amongst participants. These kind of informal constraints limit debate just as effectively as any formal restrictions.
Which is not to say that shared assumptions are a bad thing – when developing any kind of consensus then some kind of common starting point is helpful.
And that leads to a point about the importance of language.
One of the most interesting pieces of polling I've seen about the Big Society agenda was done by Ipsos-MORI for Reuters.
It found more support for the Big Society agenda when it's described as "providing support" to people rather than "giving responsibility".
"The importance of language is particularly marked upon those of lower social grades; only 28% of C2DEs think it is a good thing for them personally when phrased as 'giving responsibility', up to 47% when it is described as 'providing support'."
So to return to the issue of paradoxes, while this polling is partly a question of language it also reveals something rather deeper. The government will have most support for its plans to transfer responsibility to individuals if it still sees itself as playing an active role in the process. This is the issue of capacity building.
It might be an odd parallel, but in both Iraq and Afghanistan the strategy has been to build up the capacity of local forces before withdrawing our own. When it comes to social action, similar strategies seem to apply.
The government has said it will "train a new generation of community organisers and support the creation of neighbourhood groups across the UK, especially in the most deprived areas". In Francis Maude's colourful metaphor, the government will have to "do some gardening and sow some seeds" if a hundred flowers are to bloom.
I hope all these issues can be got right (or at least more right) because another of the themes of this blog has been how more participation leads to improved policy outcomes. The role of eDemocracy in this increasingly complex process is something I'll return to in another post soon.