Down with Coercive Participation

Politicians in Britain are keen to ‘engage’ with the public... just as long as our leaders get to make all the big decisions behind closed doors beforehand.

‘Participation’ is central to political discourse in Britain. It’s not hard to see why: political legitimacy arises from popular support, which is something today’s political parties all too clearly lack. One way or another, politicians simply have to try to engage the public. And they’ve not been short of ideas. From youth parliament to citizens’ juries and e-petitions, government and think tanks alike have succeeded in churning out a whole host of reconnection strategies over the past decade.

For all this effort, however, these engagement strategies seem to have fallen well short of their aims. Hazel Blears, UK secretary of state for communities and local government, may claim that participation schemes have been very successful over the past few years (1), but most observers would struggle to see how. Currently at the forefront of these initiatives is Involve, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to ‘understanding public engagement in all its forms’ (2). The group’s latest book, Participation Nation: Reconnecting Citizens to the Public Realm, goes some way towards demonstrating where the problems may lie.

Chief among these is the contradiction between the obsession of the political elite with participation and the limited engagement with citizens this actually involves. So, while ministers urge people to be involved in political decisions, be it ‘having a say in how an area is run or a service is delivered’ (3), they simultaneously fail to advance a broader involvement in the politics that actually informs these particular decisions. Consequently, the engagement is almost always at the level of implementation: people are urged to discuss the means with the ends left unquestioned.

For example, at nearly every level of government there are initiatives in place to tackle climate change and obesity. Yet, there has been no public discussion about whether such priorities are appropriate. Instead, we are simply consulted on how these matters should be dealt with. So, with ideas of sustainability underpinning development, business and political programmes today, participation involves no more than the government asking people where they want to see more of the same. There is no discussion over whether people want to approach environmental problems through the prism of sustainability. Similarly, since the Commons health committee report on obesity in 2004 ensured that the obesity ‘problem’ has been taken as a given, discussion is limited to the ways that the government can make the public eat a more nutritious diet or take more exercise.

This is politics reduced to the narrow realm of individual action with the ‘big picture’ already determined by politicians and policy wonks who know better than us. Take Hazel Blears’ comments at the December launch of Participation Nation. Blears stated that engagement strategies furthering citizen participation have gained in importance because the problems the government wants to address – climate change and obesity – demand personal action. But with the goals of policy already determined, public participation is reduced to carrying out a preconceived course of action. As Shaun Bayley, the Conservative candidate for the London constituency of Hammersmith and panellist at the launch of Participation Nation, argued, when the agenda is already set, people’s sense of apathy regarding public life is reaffirmed rather than challenged.

It seems then that today’s engagement drive is not so much about encouraging people to participate in debate and realise their interests in the process. Rather it is simply to ‘inform’ them of certain agendas which will manifest themselves irrespective of their involvement. That isn’t to say this is purely cynical. For instance, Blears argues that people are perfectly able to make rational decisions when confronted with the options, a point also made by Matthew Taylor, chief executive at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) and ex-New Labour strategist. And yet, both Taylor and Blears see little point in discussion taking place outside of the possible options, which are only defined as such by the government. Hence, at the Participation Nation launch, Matthew Taylor went so far as to liken adults’ political demands to children’s desire for sweets: if you give them everything they want, eventually they will be sick. So rather than allowing people to demand what they want, to which the political elite might have to say ‘no’, they are given a set of circumscribed options.

Youth Parliament exemplifies the way in which the government is attempting to engage with people in new ways but at the same time manage the expectations of the participants. From the need to reduce our carbon footprint to educating children in accordance with notions of multiculturalism, the focus is firmly on pushing pre-existing discussions and agendas. Hence, once a Youth Member of Parliament (YMP) is elected, he works with his Westminster MP, councillors and schools on ‘the issue of greatest concern to their constituents’ (4) rather than being given the space to think freely. Unsurprisingly, the Youth Parliament manifesto is almost identical to that of its New Labour equivalent. If anything, Youth Parliament ‘policies’ are even more draconian, be it ensuring that Al Gore’s contested film An Inconvenient Truth is mandatory viewing for school pupils or making Citizenship a compulsory subject for 14- to 16-year-olds.

More worryingly, the predefined nature of participative activity is now used by interest groups as the best way of seeing their agendas through. For example, in his Participation Nation chapter, Friends of the Earth director Tony Juniper notes that while some environmental prognoses ‘used to sound like science fiction, [they are] now the scientific mainstream’. The key for him is to ask: ‘What will make the breakthrough from denial and confusion to engagement and substantive action?’ (5) Yet, again, participation means changing one’s behaviour to meet the action already decided upon - in this case, the need to reduce consumption through reuse and recycling.

Another contributor to Participation Nation, Vicki Cooke, CEO of Opinion Leader Research, argues that ‘issues are often framed in ways that exclude some concerns from the conversation completely’ (6). Yet this legitimate concern is simply brushed over, with Juniper contending that change won’t happen voluntarily ‘if left to some form of “free market of ideas”’ (7). In other words, Juniper wants the government to shut off the critics and make people behave in an environmentally friendly way – all in the name of participation.

Aiming to ensure public engagement is embedded in everything, particularly local services, Labour’s ‘duty to involve’ strategy, planned for launch this year, is another step in the direction of coercive participation. It involves a personalised approach that requires all public services to put participation at the centre of what they do to increase public involvement in the political process. The decisions made here are largely budgetary, whereby people decide whether money goes to the local school or hospital. While this is not a bad thing in itself, the value of this kind of activity is questionable, as it involves reconnecting people with a decision-making process where there are no real decisions to be made.

Douglas Alexander, UK secretary of state for international development, was not far wrong when he said that people fail to see politics as something that affects their everyday lives (8). But this won’t change as long as politics is stage-managed. Furthermore, to assume that an ‘engage and they will come’ (9) approach will work is just as groundless as the view espoused by Sophia Parker, from the think tank Demos, who romantically believes that engagement involves ‘emancipating people to play an active role in shaping their own lives and the world around them’ (10). The idea that people can be emancipated from the top down only makes sense in the rather paternalistic worldview of engagement enthusiasts.

Urging political participation only when it is in agreement with the status quo leaves many reconnection strategies still-born. Although Matthew Taylor announced that we need a ‘new collectivism; an egalitarian, spontaneous, bottom-up self-actualising process’, elites are hoping that this will take place within a framework of action already devised by government. It’s hard to see what is ‘self-actualising’ or ‘spontaneous’ about that. Rather, the spirit pervading today’s reconnection programme is one of gentle coercion: people are needed to engage but they must do so in the right way.

‘Engagement’ and ‘participation’ are, ultimately, about creating an etiquette of proper conduct in discussions where the narrow parameters are pre-determined by government. Politics, meanwhile, requires meaningful debate that has practical consequences for the direction of society - and that is something that the advocates of participation don’t want to talk about.

Suzy Dean is a freelance writer and journalist based in London.

Previously on spiked

Angus Kennedy argued that the government’s obsession with petitions revealed a a shrunken view of democracy. Tessa Mayes discussed an e-petition the government was ignoring because it was out of step with the paedophile panic. Jennie Bristow showed how the appearance of consultation, rather than the substance of arguments, lay behind the election turnout debate. Dave Clements argued that government attempts to increase community activity only revealed the isolation of politicians. Or read more at spiked issue British politics.

(1) Participation Nation, launch event, 12 December 2007

(2) About Involve

(3) Participation Nation, Involve, p14

(4) UK Youth Parliament

(5) Participation Nation, Involve, p27

(6) Participation Nation, Involve, p33

(7) Participation Nation, Involve, p30

(8) Participation Nation, Involve, p121

(9) Participation Nation, Involve, p39

(10) Participation Nation, Involve, p107

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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