Public engagement in policy-making - Public Administration Committee Contents

4  Addressing the risks

29.  Catarina Tully suggested in evidence that good public engagement means being open to risk.[43] We asked the Minister for the Cabinet Office what risks there were in outsourcing policy-making in the way proposed. He responded "I do not think there are any risks. What risks would there be?"[44] The evidence we received, however, suggested that there are a number of risks in changing and opening up policy-making processes to the public that need to be addressed, but these are not about Government being hijacked by bad ideas, they are about such risks as the failure to protect the process from dominance by vested interests, the failure of the process to meet public expectation and the failure to generate sufficient public interest.

30.  All policy-making carries risks and the risks in open policy-making need to be accepted and addressed if it is to succeed. A failure to do so would exacerbate problems such as a lack of appetite for participation, disappointment arising from unrealistic expectations and the dominance of vested interests. They require appropriate measures to be put in place to mitigate them. The Government should undertake a risk analysis of open and contestable policy-making proposals in every case. This should set out the steps that will be taken to address the key risks identified.

Inclusion, representation and vested interests

31.  Professor Kathy Sykes suggested there was a danger open policy-making activity could become dominated by a single group or groups and that "there are risks if engagement is not inclusive or if it is seen as representing only sections of society". She went on to argue that:

Care is needed in any engagement approach to get beyond the people with vested interests, and beyond the people who are most articulate and most aware of policy 'opportunities'. […] Marginalised groups can often feel less of a sense of 'agency' and less able to bring about change, so they will need extra effort to include.[45]

32.  Cesagen raised the same concern:

Public engagement exercises in policy-making may ultimately comprise a somewhat homogenous and unrepresentative group of the 'likely candidates' and/or those with vested and or equivalent interest, tending to dominant or monopolise dialogue, control the ebb and flow of dialogue themes and orientations.[46]

33.  Arguments such as these have been made in opposition to contestable policy-making. In a survey of the Guardian Public Leaders network, consisting of people who are involved in public services, 81.6% of the 500 respondents were against the move to contestable policy-making, citing "undue influence over policy-making from private companies with vested interests or thinktanks with their own political views" as their concerns.[47] To resolve this, Involve suggested that "the size of policy-making contracts will need to be large enough to support a rigorous process and public engagement must become an integral part of how proposals are assessed".[48] This was echoed by Professor Kathy Sykes who suggested that contestable policy-making could provide opportunities for engagement of the public if it made a requirement to do so. The Cabinet Office said that "The degree and type of public engagement that may be possible and desirable in pieces of policy development that are procured under the contestable policy-making fund will depend on the nature of the individual projects".[49]

34.  Care must be taken to ensure that open policy-making processes are not dominated by those with vested interests, powerful lobbyists or "the usual suspects" who are aware of policy "opportunities". This is particularly true for contestable policy-making, in which one group or organisation will be tasked with providing recommendations to Government on a particular problem. As a minimum, contracts awarded through the contestable policy-making fund must require organisations to undertake appropriate public engagement and demonstrate this influenced its conclusions.

Managing expectation about public engagement

35.  A further risk is that the expectations of those who choose to be involved are not managed, resulting in disappointment and a loss of enthusiasm if the process or outcome of engagement is not what was expected. Professor Kathy Sykes stressed the need to manage public expectations of the level of influence they would have on the final decision: "if the public's expectations are not managed, and the public don't feel listened to, they can feel frustrated and think that the exercise has been hollow".[50]

36.  To address this Involve recommended that Government should:

[...]clearly define any boundaries for discussion (and its reasons) at the outset of a process and openly and transparently state why it is rejecting any recommendations from a public engagement process" in order to manage this.[51]

37.  In addition Dr Penny Fidler, CEO of the UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres, suggested that being able to demonstrate at the end of the process how evidence gathered has been used is important:

We know from a wide range of face-to-face Government consultations that science centres and museums have been involved over the years, that the public is happy to give their time, ideas and views, provided they are sure their input will be part of the evidence used to make the decision. To engage and collect evidence, and then not use it, breaks trust which is hard to regain.[52]

38.  Where citizens are engaged in policy-making, the Government must manage their expectations about public engagement. Open policy-making should empower citizens and make them feel their time and contribution has been worthwhile. This means being clear about the purpose of engagement and the limits of what the process is intended to achieve, as well as providing feedback on the findings of engagement activity and the reasons for decisions taken as a result. Departments should ensure that a mechanism for feedback to the public is built into all engagement activity, including reasons why choices and decisions have been taken, based on the evidence available.

Public appetite

39.  In its memorandum to our inquiry, the Government cited research by Ipsos-MORI which suggested that "almost six in ten of the public want to be actively involved in decisions shaping public services".[53] However the same research, based on Ipsos-MORI polling, goes on to show that there is a difference between "supporting the idea of involvement and the reality of getting involved with available structures for involvement".[54] Indeed, when we asked for evidence to suggest that there was a demand for more public engagement in policy-making, the Minister for the Cabinet Office responded:

I do not know that there is a huge amount of evidence for it. There is a belief, which I share, that a process of policy­making that is closed and exclusive sometimes leads to a narrower and more conventional approach than perhaps is possible or desirable.[55]

40.  Roughly a third of adults in England engage in some sort of "civic participation" (for example, contacting an elected representative, taking part in a public demonstration or protest, or signing a petition). Far fewer—only one in ten—are involved either in direct decision-making about local services or issues, or in the active provision of these services by taking on a role such as a local councillor, school governor or magistrate.[56] The Hansard Society's Audit of Political Engagement 9 summarised citizens' approach to civic and political activity based on their research:

One issue unites the public regardless of levels of interest, knowledge, and satisfaction with the system, and of differences in age, gender and social class: the degree to which people feel that getting involved in the political system is effective. In short, most members of the public simply do not think that if they, or people like themselves, were to get involved in politics they could have any impact on the way the country is run.[57]

41.  Evidence also suggested that people tend to engage only in issues which are of personal importance to them. Redbridge Borough Council suggested in its written evidence that:

[...] the public is motivated to take part because they believe they have something to lose or gain, not because they want to help the democratic process. Therefore there has to be a compelling call to action, preferably with a 'burning platform' issue—the loss of an amenity or service.[58]

42.  This was echoed in evidence provided by Stephan Shakespeare, Chief Executive of YouGov , who said "If you are looking at changing the parking regulations in your street, people can get very engaged".[59] In addition he went on to explain that some citizens may choose to defer their involvement to others:

[...] when there is a community group and there is change, people are usually happy but do not all attend the meetings. They really care about it because it really matters to them, but they are quite happy to leave it to a minority of their fellow citizens they trust to do it. People make those decisions. Having low turnouts does not mean they do not care. If they thought it mattered or they could have an effect on something, they would get involved.[60]

43.  Citizens will be most likely to engage with Government if they believe they can make a real difference or where the issue affects them. We believe the Government has the difficult task of ensuring adequate public participation in open policy-making. Without this, the process will be of little value. The Government must take steps to build confidence in the open policy-making process and to ensure that participation is sufficient to make the exercise meaningful and worthwhile.

43   Ev 85 Back

44   Q 231  Back

45   Ev 63  Back

46   Ev 44 Back

47   The Guardian, Senior public servants oppose move to outsource policy-making, 5 November 2012. Back

48   Ev 59 Back

49   Ev 69 Back

50   Ev 63 Back

51   Ev 65 Back

52   Ev 48 Back

53   Ev 69 Back

54   Ipsos MORI, What do people want, need and expect from public services?, March 2010, page 34 Back

55   Q 158 Back

56   Office for National Statistics, Measuring National Well-being - Governance 2012, October 2012, page 8  Back

57   Hansard Society, Audit of Political Engagement 9. The 2012 Report: Part One, page 21 Back

58   Ev 65 Back

59   Q 22 Back

60   Q 22 Back

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Prepared 3 June 2013