Announcing his new role as Minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency to The Sun’s readers last month, Jacob Rees-Mogg declared that, “to do my job I need your wisdom.” Specifically, he wanted to know from the public where to scrap EU regulation. What was his plan for how to crowdsource this insight? “I implore you all to write to me”.
As Demos’ own Polly Mackenzie has argued, this is a poor means for listening to the breadth of the public. It’s also guilty of a very common assumption: if you know that people want to be listened to, you probably know how they want to be listened to as well. How this goes wrong at a local government level is something Demos explored in recent research, but Westminster makes the same mistake.
So, from the Minister for Brexit Opportunities, this “consultation” is a missed Brexit opportunity. If it was just meant as a political gesture, it will ring even hollower to the many members of the public who care deeply about being involved in the biggest topics of the day.
Mogg’s mail-in encapsulates an ongoing problem: a lack of Government care towards improving public participation in the face of issues that would benefit from this immensely: from levelling up and Brexit to pandemic recovery and responding to climate change. And these benefits are no small things: crowdsourcing new ideas, reaching consensus across divides, holding authorities to account.
So, if a Great British Inbox doesn’t quite cut it, what would it mean for the Government to take public participation more seriously?
Bespoke and ongoing
Bringing the public into politics – in ways that go beyond elections and referendums – is a complex and varied thing. It can occur locally, regionally, nationally, internationally; it can be about deciding what’s on the political agenda, what the content of a policy should be, how it is implemented or how it is going; it can be on all manner of issues, from the environment to transport, crime to education, and much else.
As such, taking participation seriously doesn’t just mean having simply more, but still blunt, engagement. It is about taking a magnifying glass to the issue in question to understand what the right kind of involvement is in each case.
Post-Brexit participation could mean nationally representative citizen’s assemblies over a shorter period on fewer areas of policy, to understand the general consensus on a specific set of predetermined challenges. In contrast, levelling up could require hyperlocal engagement on a longer timeframe and over a range of areas, so as to be all ears to the desires of people about changes to places they live.
At the same time, we need to shift the mindset of seeing public participation as a series of discrete opportunities – a consultation, a citizen’s assembly, an election – to something more routine and ongoing. It should be seen as a matter of making long-term investments in our participatory infrastructure. There is a rich body of research and global case studies to learn from here, including in the UK.
Most notably, Scotland’s trialling of participatory budgeting (the direct involvement of citizens in budget deliberations and decisions) in the past decade led to a new policy in 2017 where 1% of local government budgets are determined through the process. This might be seen as overly-cautious scaling-up by some but it still amounts to tens of millions of pounds that people have direct say over, and there is appetite to take it further.
Getting our bearings
To take public participation seriously we need a parallel investigation into how to improve the UK’s participatory infrastructure, from central Government and from civil society, respectively. The Government has and continues to experiment: from NHS Citizen, to the Innovation in Democracy Programme and Climate Assembly UK. Nothing will work perfectly overnight. But we need a more detailed and unified understanding of where different levels and parts of Government need to focus on developing mechanisms for public engagement infrastructure. An analysis by the Institute for Government and Involve of public participation in Net Zero, for example, offers a great roadmap.
The other side of the investigation must come from those outside of Government who advocate, research, and facilitate public participation. In particular, we should be thinking about how to ‘design for impact’, as Graham Smith has argued. Smith wrote in response to climate assemblies, but his point can be applied more generally: we need to better understand how to couple public participation processes with existing policy systems to enhance their impact.
This means exploring where public participation sits in the policymaking process, how it resonates with policymakers, and how to scrutinise the Government’s response to public input. This also means developing an independent evidence base. A useful starting point here comes from a recent report by Reema Patel and Stephen Yeo which explored institutional models for a new global evidence building initiative on public engagement.
We’re living through a fantastic, creative period for this kind of democratic development, but we need to ensure this goes further. The Government and all of us who advocate for democratic reform need to take this opportunity to build up the UK’s participatory infrastructure intelligently. It might just give Mogg and others the wisdom they need.