Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A new kind of politics

Via Dave Osler, the Financial Times reports that the government has spent £2.9 million on 'listening events' on issues such as nuclear power and the NHS.

Getting people to participate in decision-making, if done well, is well worth the money. For example, if money had been spent involving people in deciding how the tax credit system should have been designed before it was first launched, then billions of pounds would have been saved.

But there is a big difference between getting people to participate in decision-making and consultating them about plans drawn up by people in power. It also raises alarm bells when reference is made to the people involved in citizens' juries being 'representatives of their communities'. They can't be representative unless the community has been able to elect them, and has some way of holding them accountable. People on citizens' juries represent only themselves.

All of this leads to cynicism about the process and the outcomes, which happen conveniently to support what the government was going to do anyway.

If Gordon Brown genuinely wants a 'new kind of politics', then we could use participatory methods to talk about some of the big issues facing the country - from climate change to welfare reform. Rather than the government coming up with its own plans and then consulting on them, people could be given the opportunity to take part in developing the ideas about what the priorities should be, and it would then be up to our representatives to decide which ideas are possible, and would be the best and most effective ways of solving the problem.

There would have to be resources available to make sure that people were not excluded from taking part, and it might even cost as much as Opinion Leader Research get to run their events, but it would be worth it.

Of course, there's no reason why anyone should have to wait for politicians to be convinced of the benefits of participatory decision-making. In a village in Lithuania, elderly people had been ignored by their local representatives for many years in a range of requests. So before the elections, they all got together, and talked about what the most important things which needed doing in their area were. Then they put these together into a charter, and asked all candidates to sign up to the charter if they wanted the support of all the elderly people in the village. Within six months of the election, they'd got more of what they wanted then they'd seen in years and years.

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