Boaty McBoatface poll and the risks of public consultation

By Anne Lane

April 19, 2016

Britain’s Natural Environment Research Council has wrapped up its internet poll seeking a name from the public for its new research ship, with “Boaty McBoatface” the clear winner.

The Council sparked off an internet storm by crowdsourcing the name, and it now looks like it will ignore the popular suggestion, instead opting for “something that fits the mission and captures the spirit of scientific endeavour”.

The NERC is not the first organisation to come unstuck by asking for public input.

“Community consultation” has become one of the most common trends in the contemporary managerial playbook. It seems like whatever decision your organisation needs to make, the advice is to “consult” community stakeholders. Want to expand your product line? Consult the community. Need to move premises? Consult the community. Thinking about updating the colour scheme in the boardroom? You know what to do …

But if you ask for community input to an organisational decision, you’d better be prepared for what you get or risk losing your organisational credibility.

The NERC’s response to irreverent but popular suggestions like Boaty McBoatface or RRS It’s bloody cold here, has outraged those who thought the name with the most votes would win.

Organisational representatives have desperately been drawing attention to the fact that they only asked for suggestions for the boat’s name, and have always been consistent in advising people that the final decision would be made by a panel chosen by the NERC.

In some ways this story is reminiscent of the 2009 debacle over iSnack 2.0, an attempt by Kraft to consult the community in its name search for a new blend of Vegemite and cream cheese. In that case the panel decision from among community suggestions resulted in a huge backlash of negativity.

As with Kraft, some cynics have suggested the furore resulting from the NERC’s behaviour was in fact a deliberate attempt to gain publicity by and for the organisation.

This theory gained traction when it was discovered the person who suggested Boaty McBoatface — although not employed by the NERC — is a public relations professional. However it isn’t clear what the NERC could possibly gain from this tidal wave of publicity, much of it critical of the organisation’s apparent reluctance to go with the flow of public opinion.

Lessons for organisations

So how can an organisation avoid the whirlpool into which the NERC seems to have fallen?

First, be absolutely certain you really do want to consult community members, as opposed to provide them with information. Consultation implies a degree of responsiveness and power sharing that you need to be comfortable with. Organisations that are not clear on these distinctions would do well to refer to the spectrum of public participation produced by the internationally-recognised International Association for Public Participation.

Second, be clear about any non-negotiable boundaries to your consultation. Be upfront about them and repeat them often. Saying afterwards you made it clear in the fine print that the decision would be yours regardless of what community members really want doesn’t help when stakeholders are excited to see the impact of their input. This sounds like sour grapes, and smacks of an elitist approach to organisational decision making that could be seen as being at odds with the concept of consultation.

Think about whether you might be better off providing community members with the chance to make a guided choice from a number of options that your organisation finds acceptable. This is what Kraft eventually did after its iSnack 2.0 fiasco.

Finally, if you do find yourself backed into a corner through consultation, think carefully about how to respond. Crying foul over the outcome of a democratic process that you have initiated won’t make your organisation look good. Even worse, such a response could damage the credibility of consultation as an important component of the managerial toolkit generally.

This article was first published by The Conversation.

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6 years ago

It’s worth also considering GreenPeace’s “name the baby whale” public campaign in the mix, as this demonstrated what was possible when an organisation ran with the public’s chosen name.

The baby whale was named “Mister Splashy Pants” in a runaway vote, which then became the focus of a ‘You named him, you save him’ campaign with extensive merchandising and fund raising activity.

This compares to the City of Austin’s naming competition to rename their Solid Waste Service – with the most voted entry being the “Fred Durst Society of the Humanities and Arts.” You can read the rest of the story (from 2011) online, but suffice to say it received a far more boring name than that of a former rock star (even after Durst personally backed it).

Naming is a poor substitute for real community consultation and it’s to be expected that the public have a bit of fun with the approach, as a rebellion against the staid formal nature of many of our institutions, who struggle to take on a joke.

Anne’s point about really wanting public input is important – too many consultations are perceived to be ignored by politicians and bureaucracies, or even corporations, sometimes when this perception is more due to the poor feedback process than tokenistic consulting. People who feel disillusioned with these process provide less feedback and more criticism and are far more resistant to change by government than when authentic consultations with good ongoing engagement support are undertaken.

However organisations also need to learn to play with the public, to accept the ‘gotchas’ and roll with them, as Greenpeace did. These situations can be an example of a sense of whimsy gone wild, or a test of the consulting organisation’s willingness to play along, laugh at itself and show a human side.

Often these tests have a serious undertone – if the community’s humour is rebuffed, it can become quite hostile to an organisation it sees as boring, staid, bureaucratic and authoritarian.

If the humour is embraced, even if the proposal is not, the organisation can win reputation (kudos) by demonstrating that while they have a serious purpose they still have a human side.

A good example of this is the response to the ‘US government should build a Deathstar’ petition a few years back through the US government’s petition system, where the response managed to both convey the administration’s dismissal of the proposal in a fun and engaging manner that hit all the right Star Wars fan buttons.



Alun Probert
6 years ago

Agree Craig. This was more of a naming competition than a public consultation and despite the acres of media coverage it created, I’m not sure that there’s real evidence of voters being outraged. It’s more likely that everyone is enjoying the joke.Also agree that it would have been better for them to come up with their own short list of names for people to vote on.

But the key lesson here is surely to remember that it’s only really community consultation if you have first defined the community or audience you are targeting. By not doing that here, they’ve made the audience everyone with access to a browser. That’s always going to be dangerous…

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