Public Administration CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Involve (PE 7)


1 We argue that public engagement is currently marginalised in the policy making process and, as a result, has led to citizens experiences being uninspiring and frustrating. There exists considerable cynicism with formal engagement processes.

2 We state that public engagement can have a range of advantages for policy making (including increased democratic legitimacy, greater accountability and better policy), but that there is a need to reconsider the concept of policy making because government alone cannot achieve the outcomes it desires. With this in mind, public engagement must be an integral part of policy making.

3 We outline the importance of selecting tools and methods for public engagement based on a combination of purpose, context and people.

4 We argue that if “contestable” models of policy making lead to the presence of greater public engagement expertise in policy-making processes, this will be positive both for policy making and public engagement. However, if it leads to policy being made on the cheap or to the manipulation of public engagement to legitimise and support particular policy positions, this will have a negative effect on policy making and public engagement.

5 We give two international examples of initiatives that have brought government, citizens and other stakeholders together to identify a shared purpose and take action together, and that support citizens to self organise themselves.

6 We set out that it is important for government not to seek to manipulate public engagement processes. Rather, it 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.

1. Introduction

1.1. This is Involve’s submission to the Public Administration Select Committee question paper on “Public engagement in policy making”.

1.2. Involve are experts in public participation. We believe passionately in a democracy where citizens are able to take and influence the decisions that affect their lives. Through both research and practice we seek to radically transform the relationship between citizens and their governments to better use the creativity, energy, knowledge, skills and resources of all.

1.3. Involve exists to support organisations, politicians and public officials to transform the way they engage with citizens. Since Involve was founded in 2004 we have worked closely with public organisations at a local, national and international level to transform how they engage with citizens. These include the Home Office, Ministry of Justice, the World Health Organisation, the European Commission, the OECD and numerous Local Authorities.

2. How do the models of policy making currently used in Government promote or discourage members of the public from getting involved?

2.1. Government policy-making processes typically treat public engagement as a nuisance at worst and an optional extra or nice-to-have at best. This does not mean that there has not been significant activity, quite the opposite in fact, but that it has not been sufficiently valued or integrated in policy-making processes.

2.2. Current models of policy making are based on and reinforce a culture and structure within government that was designed for a bygone era in which the role and expectations of government were different. As Jocelyne Bourgon identifies: “in most countries the fundamentals of public administration today remain more or less the same as at the turn of the 20th century.”1

2.3. As a result, the predominant model of policy making continues to be to develop policy in a black box, where policy options are developed and decisions taken within a sole government department,2 with public engagement restricted to assessing the acceptability of a policy idea during formation (eg through focus groups) or after a policy has been developed (eg through formal consultations).

2.4. Public engagement’s relatively marginalised position in policy making has meant that the range of methods used has been limited (ie written consultations, public meetings, satisfaction surveys and questionnaires) and it has often suffered from being:

late in the decision making cycle (ie a preferred policy has already been selected and key decisions have already been made);

fixed in format and structure (ie it is not tailored to the specific circumstance and does not respond to changes);

one size fits all (ie certain methods are used again and again with no thought for purpose, context and people; see section 5);

limited in scope (ie it is siloed by organisation and/or on technical issues); and

on government’s terms (ie government sets the terms of reference and determines how it wants citizens to engage).

2.5. As a result, public engagement has been uninspiring and frustrating in equal measure for citizens. It is therefore unsurprising that often the public does not see the point of engaging in formal engagement processes. Our research3 into how and why citizens participate showed the importance of their participation having impact and found a significant level of cynicism with formal engagement opportunities. This is not to say that there are not good examples of public engagement, but the vast majority lie at the poor or mediocre end of the spectrum and their impact overwhelms the positive impact of good public engagement.

2.6. In order to encourage members of the public to get and stay involved, our research and experience has shown that public engagement needs to:

start with the question: “what’s in it for them?”;

be designed with long-term impact in mind;

focus on developing an ongoing relationship;

utilise and build the capacity of citizens to problem-solve themselves;

engage citizens on the issues that matter to them;

provide a range of opportunities for engagement that meet the needs of a wide variety of people and offer opportunities that are sociable and enjoyable;

be linked to the possibility for real change or influence;

engage people where they are and on their terms;

be tailored to the needs of the least powerful;

lead to action that’s reported back to participants; and

involve people throughout decision-making processes, from scoping and defining the problem to implementing the decision.

2.7. To support this type of engagement, policy making models need to change radically from the dominant black box model to one that’s significantly more open, transparent, collaborative, iterative, agile, future focused and accepting of risk.

3. What advantages and disadvantages would greater public engagement in policy making bring?

3.1. When done well, public engagement can have a number of advantages for policy making, including strengthening the democratic legitimacy of policy, by ensuring that citizens are able to take and influence the decisions that affect their lives; increasing the accountability of government, by ensuring that citizens are aware and can respond to the decisions that government takes; and improving the quality of policy, by ensuring as broad a range of knowledge, views and values as possible are present in the process and ensuring that policy goes with the grain of public values. Equally, if done badly, public engagement can have a number of disadvantages, including eroding trust in government, increasing power inequalities in society and providing a fig-leaf of legitimacy for bad policy.

3.2. However, to talk of public engagement in terms of advantages and disadvantages fails to highlight the integral part it must play in policy making in future. Nowadays politicians promise and the public expects government to achieve outcomes and we are beginning to appreciate the complex nature of the social, economic and environmental world around us. This requires a new understanding of policy making with public engagement at its core.

3.3. Government can no longer afford to think of citizens as the subject of public policy, but needs to recognise that they are also its architects and implementers through their everyday choices and actions. Understanding policy making this way takes public engagement from nice-to-have status to an integral part of policy making. If government is to successfully work towards achieving outcomes, it must:

design its interventions with citizens, to benefit from their knowledge and creativity, ensure that policies fit and make sense to their lives and ensure policies are accepted and even owned by the public;

find ways to identify and work towards shared objectives with citizens and stakeholders, exploring opportunities for co-production;

support citizens and stakeholders to take their own initiative (ie generate active citizenship); and

3.4. In section 7 we give two international examples of such an approach to public engagement.

4. What are the best tools and methods for enabling public engagement in policy making?

4.1. We often see examples of government grasping for particular methods of public engagement with little thought for their comparative strengths and weaknesses and whether they are appropriate to achieve their intended outcome. Sometimes this is because the method is new and exciting, more often it’s because its well-established and civil servants’ engagement toolboxes are otherwise empty.

4.2. Different methods or combinations of methods are appropriate in different circumstances. The best tool or method for public engagement therefore depends upon a combination of purpose, context and people.

4.3. The single most important stage in any engagement process is agreeing and defining its purpose as this will determine who needs to be engaged and how. For example, different purposes could require an engagement process to find consensus or uncover conflict, gauge people’s immediate reactions or get them to deliberate, make a decision or take action, explore values or generate creative ideas, as well as a host of other things. Different methods or tools are suited to achieving these different purposes.

4.4. A good participatory process must be embedded within its context. Appropriate public engagement methods will depend upon such things as the organisation involved (including its capacity, level of public trust, history of engagement, resources), the stage of the policy- or decision-making process, the policy area (including public understanding, the degree of disagreement or conflict), past engagement on the issue, the presence or otherwise of civil society groups and organisations and links to other policy areas or issues, among other things. These contextual factors should help to determine which tools and methods are adopted.

4.5. Public engagement must be built around the people government is trying to engage. Citizens have different motivations (based on their interests, values, personality and identity), levels of resources (including time, money, skills, knowledge and confidence) and types of social networks, which all help to determine whether and how they will engage. Different methods of engagement suit different types and groups of people, with different levels of motivation, and so must be chosen with this in mind.

4.6. The Spending Challenge is perhaps a good example of a method (ie crowdsourcing) being used for a combination of the wrong purpose and with the wrong people. While the public gave comments in their tens of thousands to the Spending Challenge, government departments took very few ideas from the public on board. This was arguably because the process did not support the purpose of engaging. While the government was asking a relatively technical question regarding public sector efficiency, the public was responding on points on principle about how public money should be allocated. Citizens can and should discuss difficult issues, but they need support and information to do so. The parallel process of asking public servants to identify waste made considerably more sense as they have a much more in-depth knowledge of the inner workings of public services.

4.7. There is currently considerable focus on the promise of digital engagement in general, particularly with the Government’s support for the Digital by Default initiative. While digital engagement has a number of benefits and should certainly play an integral role in public engagement in future, it also has a number of comparative weaknesses (eg deliberation, conflict and ownership) and should therefore not be used to the exclusion of other methods where they are more appropriate.

4.8. There is need for much greater understanding within government of the array of different engagement methods, their strengths and weaknesses, and how they should be put into practice.4

5. Will “contestable” (out-sourced) models of policy making provide greater opportunities for public engagement in the process?

5.1. If “contestable” models of policy making lead to the presence of greater public engagement expertise in policy-making processes this will be positive both for policy making and public engagement. If however it leads to policy being made on the cheap or to the manipulation of public engagement to legitimise and support particular policy positions, this will have a negative effect on policy making and public engagement.

Danger of Policy on the Cheap

5.2. Experience over the past decades has shown that not investing in policy making upfront is false economy as it leads to policy that cannot be implemented, is badly delivered and/or the public rejects.5 There is therefore a strong case to be made that a relatively small amount of funding for public engagement upfront can prevent much larger costs in the long term. However, government has often failed to put in the time and resource required to make good policy and avoid such longer term costs, in part because modern politics and media often demands that decisions are taken quickly, but also because policy making has not been approached holistically. That is to say, the cost—benefit calculation is often skewed towards short term savings, because the longer term costs of bad policy are not fully understood and are likely to accrue to other parts of government—whether delivery agencies or other departments.6

5.3. Outsourcing policy arguably has the potential to make things worse by detaching further the making of policy from its delivery and removing the incentive for upfront investment to avoid long term costs. In addition, there is a danger that policy making is underfunded and that the profit motive creates pressure to cut corners, meaning that public engagement remains as a nice-to-have, rather than an essential component of the policy-making process.

5.4. In order to ensure that “contestable” policy making does not lessen opportunities for public engagement, 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. Contestable policy making must not become synonymous with making policy on the cheap.

Danger of Manipulation

5.5. There is significant room for manipulation in public engagement, through for example, how questions are asked, how participants are primed, what information participants are given and how discussions are facilitated. In some circumstances, a degree of manipulation is legitimate in order to aid the process, perhaps to generate discussion or uncover participants values. Good facilitators are aware of how they are manipulating a process and seek to do so from a position of neutrality. That is to say, they must leave their own views and opinions at the door.

5.6. Public engagement processes must remain policy neutral in order to maintain the public’s trust. Experience has shown, for example in public dialogues on the social and ethical implications of science and technology innovations, that public support for a process very quickly disappears if participants feel that they are being pushed in a particular direction. There is already significant public cynicism regarding government consultations, with many (not unreasonably) believing that they are used to legitimise decisions that have already been taken.

5.7. There is therefore a distinct danger that public engagement is used by third-party organisations commissioned to make policy as a mechanism to legitimise and support their preexisting policy position. This would ultimately damage the policy-making process, the public’s trust in government and future public engagement processes.

6. What lessons can be learned from abroad, and how can they be applied within the UK?

6.1. There are many good examples of good public engagement spread across the globe that could be applied within the UK. We give two examples here (following on from our response in section 4) of initiatives that have brought government, citizens and other stakeholders together to identify a shared purpose and take action together.

6.2. An initiative in Estonia called “My Estonia”, mobilised 50,000 volunteers (3% of the Estonian population) to clear 10,000 tonnes of illegally dumped rubbish. This was collective action involving citizens, NGOs, private companies and state officials, which also sought to change the idea that the state and its citizens are separate entities. The project achieved significant financial and time savings. It is estimated that the work done by the public in one day at a cost of £500,000 would have cost up the state to £20 million and taken three years.

6.3. Similarly, a process in Geraldon in Australia called “Geraldton: 2029 and Beyond” brought citizens, government, industry and the media together to resolve issues that matter, and to help enact their outcomes through more collaborative governance. Face-to-face and online deliberative processes during 2010–11 resulted in prioritised proposals (by citizens and the Greater Geraldton City Region Alliance Governance Group) being implemented. Based on the outcomes of the 2029 process to date, a Community Action Plan was developed and has now become a “Community Charter”. This documents the community’s aspirations together with a series of practical reforms, to be jointly ‘owned’ by the citizens, industry and the government departments involved.

7. How should Government ensure that policy shaped by public engagement reflects the chosen strategy of the Government; and national strategic imperatives?

7.1. This question appears to reflect a common desire from government to try to confine and control public engagement. What it must not do is attempt to manipulate public engagement processes to reflect government policy or strategy as this will destroy public trust in government and engagement.

7.2. It is however legitimate for government to not accept the recommendations of a public engagement process, but it should set out openly and transparently the reasons for rejecting recommendations in order that it might be held to account for that decision.

7.3. In addition, a well designed process will set some clear boundaries for discussion at the outset and their reasons.

October 2012

1 Bourgon, J. (2011) A new synthesis of public administration: Serving in the 21st century. Montreal/Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press

2 Hallsworth, M. (2011) System stewardship: The future of policy making? London: Institute for Government

3 Brodie, E; Hughes, T; Jochum, V; Miller, S; Ockenden, N; & Warburton, D. (2011) Pathways through participation: What creates and sustains active citizenship. London: NCVO, IVR & Involve.

4 To this end, Involve will soon be launching a new website called the Participation Compass that will support those planning engagement processes to choose an appropriate method according to purpose, context and people.

5 See for example, chapter 5; Hallsworth, M; Parker, S; & Rutter, J. (2011) Policy making in the real world. London: Institute for Government

6 The Total Place initiative helped to uncover the gaps, waste and problems that poorly designed policy can create in a system. See, Hughes, T; & Richards, R. (2011) ‘Citizen centred public services: Designing for complex outcomes’ in J. Bourgon, A new synthesis of public administration: Serving in the 21st century. Montreal/Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press

Prepared 31st May 2013