Getting 'real': why political leaders want to connect informally with everyday people

The call for politicians to ‘get real’ and ‘go public’ is more than just about winning elections. Officials can design engagement spaces to better suit those needs.

This week, the Deputy NSW Premier John Barilaro warned that politicians need to ditch their fancy suits, put their jeans on and connect with everyday people. Normally, such unsolicited cross-party fashion advice would have ruffled feathers but the NSW Premier, Gladys Berejiklian (pictured above), appears to agree.

Getting out of the political bubble and connecting to everyday people, it turns out, is not just about surviving election battles. It helps our leaders make better collective decisions, according to research we conducted with 51 senior politicians with ministerial experience in the Australia, UK, NZ, Canada and the US.

Most of us would laugh out loud at the idea that our political leaders are genuinely interested in interacting and listening to everyday citizens. We would scoff at the idea that politicians might find our views insightful, even useful for their decision-making. And on the idea that politicians want more (not less) opportunities to meet with citizens, we would say, ‘Come on … really?’

But these are exactly the surprising results that have emerged from a qualitative research project in which 51 senior government ministers from the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada and the United States were interviewed about their views on public engagement.

“Public engagement would be better served if it ‘designed in’ informal dialogical spaces where citizens and decision-makers can interact, constructively.”

More specifically, political leaders were asked if and how they value public input when governing, how they envisage an ‘ideal’ participatory process, what challenges public engagement poses to them in practice, and how they work around these challenges. This data was collected as part of a larger research project exploring the role of public input in contemporary political leadership.

Before this study, remarkably little was known about what political leaders think about public engagement. Optimists have typically assumed that leaders value any kind of public input because it boosts their capacity to work as effective MPs. But can this really be said of ministers who have to make decisions for constituencies well-beyond their own electorates?  Cynics, on the other hand, have always viewed any attempt by leaders to engage with the public as a mere means to win more votes.

Our research paints a more nuanced picture of how political leaders view public engagement.

We find that contemporary political leaders place a high value on inputs from the public when making collective decisions. Public input, we heard, informs their judgement, helps them source new ideas and above all it enables them to be able to gain a deeper understanding or appreciation of issues: As one minister explained:

‘’You have to be able to work off people, to talk to people. That’s your greatest … political asset…It means that you can get advanced notice of a problem. That’s the first advantage. But it also means that you are better informed when someone’s trying to bullshit you. I’d say “hang on a minute, that doesn’t make sense.” It informs the questions that you ask. And the quality of your work is often dependent upon the questions that you’ve asked.’’

When leaders get outside ‘the bubble’, they are better placed to access the personal stories of people living the realities of public policies. As another leader put it:

”So often when you’re designing a policy, particularly as a minister, there’ll be a huge number of people that will be affected. And to be able to…really understand those practical parts of the policy and how they might affect people and how you might need to tweak it [is] why I think often those personal stories are very important.’’

While leaders might celebrate public input in the abstract, our research uncovered how futile formal consultation processes, such as public meetings, are for political leaders. Many political leaders we interviewed lamented how often public engagement processes are too staged, over-structured, and formal. In their experience, such events do not produce public input that is useful for decision-making because they are spaces of venting and antagonism rather than constructive dialogue.

Leaders step around the limitations of conventional public engagement processes by seeking out more informal and personal ways of interacting with the public. Leaders explained that when public input is more face-to-face, conversational, direct or one-to-one, they can probe deeper into issues and access ‘on the ground’ perspectives. According to a number of political leaders we interviewed, sometimes it is the spontaneity of these informal public encounters that can be the most persuasive of all.

What are the democratic implications of leaders preferences for more informal and personalised interactions with the public? Some may be concerned that because informal interactions between decision-makers and individual citizens occur outside the public spotlight, they are more likely to privilege private interests over public reasons. Others may rightly ask about the inclusivity of these informal elite-citizen interactions and worry that more privileged citizens will have greater capacity to access leaders than the marginalised.

While acknowledging these democratic dangers, we suggest there are reasons to be more optimistic about the democratic potential of more informal interactions between political leaders and the public. Our research finds that leaders are particularly discerning about who they choose to listen to in the process of receiving and digesting public input.

On the whole, leaders value informal interactions with citizens precisely because they want to get beyond the demands of zealous individuals and organised groups in order to hear the perspectives and experiential knowledge of everyday people. Political leaders particularly welcome the opportunity to get beyond their policy advisers and the confines of technocratic-policy making to hear fresh ideas.

To be clear we are not claiming that politicians always listen to or follow public views: they have their own policy preferences and listen to other sources of input from civil servants, advisors, stakeholders and their party. Nevertheless, our research makes clear that many political leaders at the top level of government want to connect and interact with the public.

Their support for participatory governing is, however, qualified; in their experience formal consultation processes such as public meetings do not produce the kind of constructive and usable public input they need to inform their collective judgements. For this kind of public input they rely on informal, spontaneous interactions with individual citizens.

The practice of public engagement would therefore be better served if it ‘designed in’ informal dialogical spaces where citizens and decision-makers can interact, constructively.

Creating participatory spaces where decision-makers engage informally and productively with citizens would go a long way to addressing the central message of this study: that contemporary political leaders want constructive conversations with citizens, not staged participatory performances.

This piece is based on a recently published article in the international journal, Political Studies. Hendriks, Carolyn M and Jennifer Lees-Marshment (2018) ‘Political Leaders and Public Engagement: The Hidden World of Informal Elite–Citizen Interaction.’ Political Studies. Available online (early view).

Carolyn M. Hendriks is an Associate Professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University (ANU). Her work examines democratic aspects of contemporary governance, including participation, deliberation, inclusion and representation. She has taught and published widely on the application and politics of inclusive and deliberative forms of citizen engagement. She is the author of over 40 published works, some of which have won awards including the Mayer Journal Prize for best paper in published in 2017 in the Australian Journal of Political Science. @CarolynHendriks

Jennifer Lees-Marshment is an Associate Professor in political science at The University of Auckland in New Zealand. Author/editor of 14 books, Jennifer is a world expert in political marketing with additional research interests in public input, leadership, and governance. Her most recent work The Ministry of Public Input (Palgrave 2015) won the IAP2 Australasia Research Award. Jennifer was academic advisor to TVNZ’s Vote Compass in the 2014 New Zealand election and Chair of the Magna Carta 800 committee for NZ in 2015. @jleesmarshment

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