Paul Johnston has written a thought provoking post on consultation and citizen engagement.  Some of what he says is a version of the ‘how can we use technology to make it better question’ which is important but, to my mind (and I think to his) secondary.  Where he gets really interesting is when he makes the point that:

It’s easy to complain about governments that don’t listen, but actually governments spend most of their time listening – it’s just everyone is telling them different things and for different reasons. Conversation is not something new for governments. Just think of all the conversations governments are already involved – politicians’ conversations with their constituents (letters, meetings), ministers’ conversations with all sorts of delegations or with journalists, civil servants’ conversations with trade associations, think tanks etc. Of course, governments could be more open and more transparent (including being more transparent about all these conversations!), but it’s not fair to suggest they live in a world of self-imposed exclusion. And part of the problem with some of the web-based solutions is that they seek to trump this world of conversations rather than add to it.

The point that governments listen but are hearing different things is a very important one.  Many of the complaints about governments being unhearing or unresponsive stem from not distinguishing between absolute questions and relative questions.  Those who want to influence government with a particular point of view on a particular issue are largely seeing absolute questions.  But from inside government, almost all the hard questions look relative.  Improving the quality of consultations on absolute questions is a good thing, but won’t necessarily help much with the relative questions.

That’s a bit abstract, so let me offer an example.  The most immediate government decision facing me at the moment is the one I am being consulted on by my local council:  should they put a different kind of traffic hump in my road to slow traffic down.  That’s an absolute question.  In its simplest form, the answer is either yes or no. Even if, as I am inclined to, I challenge the question and say that a different solution would be better because they have framed the problem wrongly, it’s still an absolute question in my sense.

But for the council, it is always a relative question:  should we put road humps in this street or that one, should we put more money into traffic calming or better street lighting, should we put more money into a better environment or into more social care, should we put more money into this area or that one?  And that’s just the expenditure side.  What is the optimal balance between expenditure and revenue raising?  And as we move further from the immediate and local to the broader and national (and for some of us, supra-national), the questions get more relative still:  not just how much revenue, but what is the balance between this tax and that one, not just how much expenditure, but what is the balance between defence and health?

The reason why governments find ideas of direct democracy frustrating is that all of us as individuals find the absolute questions easier to recognise and engage with, often in ways which in aggregation are contradictory, and then get frustrated with politicians who are unavoidably grappling with relative questions.  Citizen juries are an attempt to square this circle by getting a group of people to move an issue a bit more towards the relative end of the scale.  They are not anything close to a perfect solution, but they do make clear that there is a cost to informed decision making, which is the cost of becoming sufficiently informed to make well-grounded decisions.

That’s not an argument for some form of corporatist decision making.  Paul’s suggestions for improving the transparency of engagement are good ones.  But I don’t think that in themselves they will remove the frustration felt by people with absolute answers when trying to engage with governments wrestling with relative questions.


  1. This is all true and Paul is exactly right about the issue of transparency especially. We might feel inclined to be more sympathetic to the plight of governments and all this listening they are supposed to be doing if they were a little more open about who they are conversing with, why and with what outcome. As we all know, not all conversations with government are equal, an inevitability which tends to erode a little Paul’s attempt to defend governments from the sometimes unfair criticism to which they are subjected on this issue.
    Couple of other points. I’ve spent over 20 years working on all aspects of ‘consultation’ and listening methods for government and my conclusion is that it’s a little murkier than Paul’s observations suggests. From those situations where frankly it’s more a dialogue of the deaf than anything remotely resembling what I think a conversation should be, to those situations where the government listens to people about issues on which it has already determined its view, the empirical track record for governments in this field is patchy, at best.
    I’m inclined to follow the Stephen Coleman line (fornmer eDemocracy professor at Oxford and now Professor of Political Communications at Leeds)that suggests the kind of conversations needed to truly start closing the democratic deficit are qualitatively different to many (not all – I admit) of the initiatives governments use to claim they are listening.
    In some cases, they simple aren’t (listening, that is). The basic premise of a conversation is the prospect that each side might think differently by the end of the exchange than they did when they started. I’m not confident that principle is always the starting point for governments, or at least not often enough.
    We have much further to go and the new tools of social networking and collaboration will be central to the task.

  2. I think it is true both that Paul was generous in his description of how much listening is going on in government, and that there much more of it with a much more positive attitude to it than there was a few years ago. But though there is a very real wish to listen, governments still struggle to hear and to know how to improve their listening skills. So I strongly agree that there is much further to go – not least to get beyond the community of the articulate. But even then, I still think the problem I discuss in this post remains. Politics is essentially about finding ways of making complicated and inter-dependent decisions across a wide range of interests. Doing that is inherently hard (which is one reason why it’s so easy to criticise politicans). Doing politics differently may be very attractive, but that doesn’t mean that what is being done is any less political.

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