Who cares?

My last post here talked about petitions, and complained how ineffective they are as a way of understanding public opinion and seeking democratic support for action. Here’s a reasonable challenge to that view: petitions (and by extension opinion polls and tick-box consultations) are the best way of taking public views because they are the simplest and the quickest. People don’t have time to get involved in the complex trade-offs that good policy decisions require: they elect councillors and MPs specifically so they don’t need to get involved unless they are really opposed to a decision.

There’s a degree of truth to that. People are busy and don’t have a lot of time to spare. Those with most spare time and capacity are likely to be older and richer than the population as a whole. Politics and policy are complex things, and understanding an issue well – to the level of a policy analyst or researcher – is something that takes months rather than days or hours.

However, the degree of understanding that professional politicians and officers have is never likely to be shared by the population as a whole, or even a subset of active citizens. It sets the bar impossibly high to ask for a group of citizens that is both reasonably representative and informed to that level.

It also mistakes the role of participation in local democracy – not to replace experts, but to make clear the nature of public views on an issue to raise issues that might not otherwise be considered, and to give access to resources of public knowledge and effort that are not available to council staff.

There is an appetite for engagement, as well. In the 2010 Citizenship Survey, 72% of people said that it was important for them to be able to influence political decisions, while only 32% of the same sample thought that they actually could influence decisions. The existence of what – to use Cold War terminology – we might call the democracy gap is confirmed by the 2008 Place Survey, in which 27% said that they wanted to be more involved in local decisions, and the Hansard Audit of Political Engagement, which shows that 43% of people say they want to get more involved in their local area.

All very well, a sceptic might say, there is a desire for greater involvement in the abstract, but when people actually make the choice about how to spend their time, they spend a lot of time in the pub and not much time at Full Council. Maybe, but Full Council, as most readers of this blog will know, is not necessarily an arena that favours open democratic discussion with no fixed views or preconceptions. Imagine one of the people in the democracy gap – people who want to be more involved, but don’t understand quite how. Would they get much from turning up to a council meeting? Would they even know what was happening?

I think (as you might expect) that there is a target market for democracy, if government can work differently and engage differently. It sits somewhere between the 27% and the 43% in the various surveys quoted above. Even at 30% of the voting population, that’s a potential market of thirteen and a half million people, or about thirty thousand people in a typical local council area.

Can we find out who they are? On the basis of Place Survey data, they’re fairly well-spread around the country – the highest percentage in London (33%), lowest in the East Midlands (24%). People in Chesterfield were least interested in getting more involved (17%), but in Hackney almost two fifths were keen.

The seventh Hansard Society audit divided the population into eight categories ranging from the “politically committed” (10% of the voting age population), down to the “alienated/hostile” (9%). Over three-quarters of the “politically committed” vote in council elections, compared with barely 1% of the “alienated/hostile”. Almost a quarter were in the “disengaged/mistrustful” category, which had the second-lowest turnout at council elections, of only 10%. Perhaps local democracy efforts can’t reach them, at least not straight away, but that still leaves two thirds of the population – those in the other six Hansard categories – as a target group for greater engagement.

Specifically, there is a group identified by the most recent (eighth) Hansard audit, who are clear targets for engagement work. They are described by Hansard as “willing localists”, and make up 14% of the population, or just under six and half million people. They are not actively involved in community or socio-political activities, but are the most likely, realistically, to become so in the future.

There is a broad market for democracy –  a quarter of people are completely turned off by politics, slightly less than a quarter are already heavily involved. Our target should be the middle 50%. We know they want to be involved in issues, because they are joining single issue campaigns in ever-increasing numbers. We know that they have a mindset that doesn’t reject politics – more than 70% of the medium-commitment groups in the Hansard audit say that it’s one’s duty to vote, but less than half of them do.

How do we create engagement in local issues that gets to those middle voices without being swamped by the “active campaigners”? How can we create ways of engaging that allow people with little spare time to participate on the basis of evidence and information? These are some of the topics we’ll be covering at the summit – but we can start the discussion below.

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About Anthony Zacharzewski

I founded and currently run the Democratic Society (http://www.demsoc.org)
This entry was posted in Proposition 3: Put democracy back into localism. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Who cares?

  1. Anthony Zacharzewski says:

    Many of the statistics in this post come from the excellent democracy facts resource on Catherine Howe’s blog: http://curiouscatherine.wordpress.com/facts-glorious-facts-2011/

  2. John Routledge says:

    Interesting stuff from Anthony as always although I would question some of the assumptions and observations made in this piece.

    Firstly, I challenge the view that the knowledge and understanding that professional politicians and officers have is never likely to be shared by a wider population. This ascribes a cult status to people who, in my opinion, are no more likely to understand a problem than people from many other walks of life. Further, some public sector officers have a narrow view of many political and engagement issues precisely because they only have specialist experience in the public sector and sometimes see their role as ‘protecting’ politicians from better informed citizens or even more knowledgeable colleagues.

    One interesting take on the lack of knowledge among public officials is provided by Henry Tam in his blog piece “The Know Nothing Executives (KNEs) – a special breed who rise to the top of organisations by knowing nothing except the rewards from serving every whim and command of their masters” (see henry-tam.blogspot.com/2011/08/know-nothing-executives)

    I would also question the idea tha only a certain percentage of the public want to be engaged in politics and democracy. This reminds me of Paul Valery’s assertion that ‘Politics is the art of preventing people from taking part in affairs which properly concern them:, The question is not how many people want to be invlved but what the different approaches s to engagement that are needed to reach ALL parts of the population. Everyone ‘belongs: to society and politics is of concern to us all, whether we call it that or not.

    The ‘democracy gap’ then can equally be seen as a failure of politicians and officers every bit as much as it is a failure of the public to be engaged. i would argue that part of the problem is the political failure to join up issues of democracy and engagement in the public sector with those in the private sector. Corporations now make more decisions that effect our everydy life than councils and yet they have no democracy outside of large investors. Now if our politcians and officers are so smart, how come they don’t address this issue nearly so well as fresher students?

    • Anthony Zacharzewski says:

      Very valid questions, John, thank you. Two thoughts in partial response:

      1. I don’t believe that policy experts are magic, or are any less prone to errors of fact or judgement. In fact, my assumption is that “policy experts know best” is an invalid argument. As we’ve seen in the financial crisis, groupthink is a strong force and the “wisdom of crowds” can make better decisions. However, we should acknowledge that people who are engaged in the decision making process as their day job do have some knowledge that is valuable and different, even if it’s only knowledge of service history and the financial and legal framework.

      2. I definitely agree with you on the causes of the democracy gap – and I’m not saying that in theory everyone could be involved in political decision making if the right methods were discovered – the stats I’m talking about are people’s own expressed opinions, which obviously include lots of assumptions on their part about what politics is, and how interesting it is to be involved with.

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