Monday, 15 February 2010

On participation...(and why people don't)


I have written on diversity, on the idea of the progressive and on markets (although I was rather snarky). Since this has become an ongoing theme, I thought I’d set out a few thoughts on another oft-raised “matter of importance”: participation.

Some while ago I wrote a piece entitled “In Praise of Idiots” where I argued that voter abstention wasn’t such a terrible thing.

“Now the good left-wing liberals at the Guardian think this grumpiness, this disengagement, this disinterest is a problem. And that’s where I disagree – the core consideration is the extent to which we are able to live as Greek idiots. Quietly, privately, without bothering our neighbours with our problems – and when such people want change they will get up from their armchairs, walk away from the telly and vote. The idea that not being bothered with voting most of the time makes them bad people is a misplaced idea – they are the good folk.

Above all we should listen quietly to what this “apathy” calls for – it is less bothersome, less interfering, less hectoring and more effective government. Such people want government to be conducted at their level not to be the province of pompous politicians with overblown and lying rhetoric. And they want the language of common sense, freedom, liberty and choice to push away the elitist exclusivity of modern bureaucratic government.”

Which brings us to participation. There is a presumption in policy-making that increased levels of participation result in better policy, more accountable government and variations of society being “fairer”, “more equal” or “more democratic”. So when organisations like the Joseph Rowntree Foundation discuss the issue there is no questioning of that basic assumption – it is axiomatic that higher levels of “participation” are good.

The problem I have with this is echoed in the JRF report:

“Many attempts at community participation fail because organisations promoting involvement are unclear about the level of participation on offer. Limited consultation ,with few real options, which is presented as an opportunity for active participation is likely to result in disillusionment.”

So let’s look at what the typical opportunities for “community participation” encompass:

There’s voting – we get a say in who toddles off down to Brussels, Westminster or the Town Hall but no say over what they do while they’re representing us. We are not participating but passing across our rights to participate to our “representative”

There’s the local forum – nearly everywhere has them plus extensive and expensive bureaucracies supporting such activity. And they’re very useful – for the policy-maker since they are consultative rather than participatory. More importantly, such forums get low turn outs because folk have something better to do on a wet Wednesday evening than sit watching patronising powerpoint presentations in some drafty community centre

There’s the survey – usually self-selecting rather than representative and mostly limited to “yes/no” boxes. And this clearly isn’t participation but opinion research (however badly conducted it may be)

Or how about “participatory budgeting” – a great idea but even in Porto Alegre where it’s something of a religion fewer than 3% of citizens take part. And those taking part ore disproportionately older, richer and better educated than the average

So either we are taking the horse to the water and it is stubbornly refusing to drink or else people think it’s a waste of time. And I’m pretty sure that the problem is the latter rather than the former. Most people do not want to participate in a highbrow discussion about investment priorities, regulatory options and other matters of bureaucratic importance.

If you want people to participate, you have to give them something – not a £5 voucher for filling in a survey but real control over the things that matter to them. And that means the schools, the local health centre, the community centre, the sports hall, the park and the cops. If you make people responsible for something they will participate. If you merely consult – or worse pretend that their input really will affect the policy choices of bureaucratic decision-makers – then people will, quite sensibly, stay at home watching whatever rubbish the telly is showing that evening!


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