For many people in Britain today, consultation has become a dirty word. And it’s easy to see why. When the idea of more consultations was discussed at a public meeting I attended last week, one of the participants told me that he’d been involved in a consultation about closing his local hospital. “Two hundred people said they didn’t want it kept it open. And they shut it anyway. Next time I don’t think I’ll bother.”
Using consultations to add a veneer of legitimacy to a decision that’s already been makes a mockery of the whole exercise. But this doesn’t mean the answer is getting rid of consultations. On the contrary the answer is stronger, better and above all more meaningful consultations. And that’s why I’m supporting the Power 2010 proposal to create a duty for local authorities to use meaningful deliberative consultation.
Power 2010, for those not aware of it, is a campaign to create a manifesto for democratic change in the UK in a way which is from beginning to end controlled by the public. The project kicked off last Autumn with an invitation for members of the public to submit their ideas for how to make Britain democratic. They did so in their thousands, and over Christmas a team of experts distilled the entries into 58 distinctive proposals for reforms. Last weekend, a random panel of more than 100 citizens from across the UK met in London to look over the proposals and give their opinions. And this week, an online vote was launched letting everyone in the UK have their say. At the end of the vote they five leading ideas will become the Power 2010 pledge and politician from all parties will be challenged to put their name to it.
So there’s still plenty of time for you to have your say on what proposals you’d like to see in the final five. As for me, I’m back “public consultation through a deliberative process’ It may sound innocuous, but it’s hiding a revolution in UK government behind its unassuming name. This proposal calls for government to be legally bound to give citizens a real say in decision-making through a process of ‘deliberative democracy’ and to listen to the outcome. Deliberation – getting together and talking about issues – is a powerful tool to produce wise, well-informed decisions. Whilst critics of citizen involvement worry that the public will produce reactionary, conservative or discriminatory decisions, evidence suggests that talking through issues with people from different backgrounds moves people which are generous, tolerant and sometimes even imaginative – and produces fair, inclusive outcomes.
Deliberation offers an alternative to the tiresome tug-of-war between proponents of representative and direct democracy. Rather than trusting in political elites to make decisions on our behalf on the basis of a tenuous mandate, or investing power in populist schemes like referenda which can be vulnerable to kneejerk reactions, deliberative democracy aims to create the conditions where the public can bring their wisdom, experience and empathy to decision-making. And who could argue with that?
You can vote for deliberative consultation on the Power 2010 website