There’s a reason not everyone loves citizen engagement

By Alice Whitehead

Wednesday February 10, 2021


When I talk about citizen engagement, I usually describe it as having two parts — “digital Athens” and co-design.

Digital Athens embodies the idea of harnessing the power of the internet for more direct democracy. It is a very interesting concept, but it’s not so relevant to the average policy team, which works for the government of the day and has little power to set policy priorities.

Co-design, on the other hand, is an approach that “goes beyond consultation by building and deepening equal collaboration between citizens affected by, or attempting to resolve, a particular challenge”.

Objections to citizen engagement

Engaging citizens in co-design is more relevant for policy teams because they are the active designers of policy, though they of course do this in collaboration with others, or occasionally leave it all to “operational staff”.

In my role as the policy and service design lead at the UK Ministry of Housing, I have been a proponent of doing more citizen engagement for some time.

And yet, as I worked in a policy team in a previous role, I found it was nearly impossible to start a conversation about actually doing it. As soon as the subject appeared on the horizon, a tangled web of defensive arguments and anecdotes would accumulate to obscure it.

These weren’t from particularly senior people — the discussion didn’t get that far. If I had to pinpoint, I’d say that greater length of service correlated to more pushback. But there were definitely exceptions to the rule.

Therefore, what I actually heard and observed were a lot of fears about citizen engagement and reasons why we shouldn’t do it.

I was reflecting on this impasse as I was reading the recent Open Government Partnership report on deliberation among policymakers. It is balanced, taking care to represent a policymaker’s perspective on deliberation. But I didn’t recognise my experience in its examples.

I’ve usually made small policy tweaks to the existing landscape, rather than thinking up standalone policies to address big new problems. I’ve been situated in a team of people that collectively has a long memory concerning the policy area, not in a crack squad working on an issue in isolation.

It prompted me to think more deeply about the portrayal of what policymakers think and feel, and I wanted to share my knowledge and experience in the hope that others can make use of it.

Here are some of the common objections from policymakers and others that I have heard when trying to make the case for more citizen engagement.

1. “It is not a good use of my time”

“If we do it, the citizens will argue with each other” — Policymakers are well aware of the trade-offs and issues their policy presents and would like to have solved them already. They know people feel strongly about them and they assume that the environment will be hostile, so, understandably, they try to avoid it.

“I will spend a lot of valuable time with them for little return” — Policymakers feel they are experts in their policy and don’t need to listen to the same old arguments being rehashed. Also, policymakers are very pressed for time, which can translate into being unable to travel to meet diverse groups of people.

“The group is ‘statistically insignificant’” — What is the point of dedicating time to citizen engagement if it is a random snapshot of views and is going to be disparaged for not being scientifically robust?

2. “It does not produce good ideas”

“The attendees will be unrepresentative, or the event will be hijacked by ‘activists’” — Policymakers worry a lot about bias and giving one group more influence over government than another. They know there’s a risk that the person who shouts loudest will end up getting what they want. That’s compounded if it looks like we’re committing to take their ideas forward.

“Their ideas will be impractical or irresponsible” — Policymakers imagine a series of very expensive proposals that disadvantage others and/or disregard scientific findings.

“They won’t understand the constraints we have” — It’s not that the constraints are particularly complex, more that citizens will be upset that government has decided to prioritise in this way.

3. “It does not build trust”

“They will be disillusioned when we change the idea or don’t carry it out” — Policymakers anticipate that they will be unable to deliver on the proposals as suggested, and that this means the exercise will be disappointing for the participants and even weaken their trust in government.

“In three years, the citizen panel will be repeating the same ideas, none of which we have implemented” — Often policymakers feel that they are already at the stage in the cycle where they have a “wish list” from their users which they have been unable to act on. Going back to hear people reiterate one main thing that they need to happen is frustrating for everyone.

4. It is personally humiliating*

*Unsurprisingly, no one said this out loud, so no speech marks here.

They will expose our impotence or our contradictions — Policy teams walk a fine line between cost, ideology and evidence. They wouldn’t turn up to work if they felt that their work wasn’t doing good or was even doing harm. Teams sometimes use defensive mechanisms to keep up morale in difficult situations. Face to face, frank interaction with citizens who have lived experience of the policy, especially when there can be no changes to cost or policy objectives, could just burst the bubble.

I hope this list of common objections can help you to get a better understanding of the barriers to citizen engagement in government. These are the counterpoints that we need to think of creative rebuttals and persuasive arguments to overcome.

By listing the arguments here, I hope we advocates of citizen engagement can learn to empathise more with policymakers and understand how they may feel about what we are asking them to do.

And, lastly, we shouldn’t be blind to the fact that some of these objections may — in some cases — be completely valid. If you want to introduce citizen engagement in a project, you should also think about whether it really is the right thing to do in the specific circumstances you are working on.

It isn’t my intention to argue that these fears are fully justified, or that they can easily be extinguished. However, I hope that exploring and articulating them has provoked you a bit, made you question some assumptions or inspired you to think a little differently about citizen engagement.

For me, the most important thing to bear in mind is that all these ideas were current in a team with a traditional ‘policy culture’. Culture can’t be changed by just one person, but it can be caused by a senior person’s reactions and messages.

How can we work towards a culture where these fears can be discussed without fear?

This article is curated from Apolitical.

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