Participation and power – does your voice count?
Apart from monitoring the goings-on in the Commons Chamber itself, we also do our best to keep an eye on happenings in legislative committee rooms throughout the UK. It’s not always an easy thing to do- there are many committees to watch, and much of it is not relevant to us, but occasionally we’ll strike gold with something that makes us think. The lucky committee this week was the House of Commons Public Affairs and Constitution Committee which this week was taking evidence on how England should be governed.
The evidence of one of the witnesses particularly intrigued us. The speaker was Richard Wyn Jones, Professor of Welsh Politics at the University of Cardiff, who highlighted his research showing that the English feel a particularly low level of ‘political efficacy’ – in short, they feel particularly strongly that their voice does not count for much. There are many reasons why this might be the case. The peculiarities of a political settlement where England lacks its own legislature; a constitutional system that, save for elections, gives little obvious opportunity for citizens to actively participate in democracy; perhaps even that curious characteristic of the English to feel hard-done-by even in the best of circumstances.
All that got us thinking. Might a more active approach to consultation and engagement help provide a balm to the feelings of alienation? Outside of elections, consultations are arguably one of the biggest opportunities the average citizen has to influence what is going on in their world, and one of the best ways that people can see the results of their statements. The Institute is founded on these very principles and over the years has seen an improvement in many consultations which can be attributed to many things including more refined consultation practices, courts being more willing to intervene in poor consultations and a general increase in the numbers of people willing to engage in activism to achieve their goals.
Despite all this, however, a glance at the number of responses that many consultations receive does not necessarily provide a glowing portrait. It is a fairly frequent defence in Parliament when a government does not wish to take any action that a consultation supported, they will cite the low level of participation as a reason. Here at the Institute, we do not think that the number of responses is necessarily a good indicator of the health of a consultation. More often than not, it is a question of quality, not quantity.
But in light of the apparent disconnect and feelings of being politically adrift, should we be attempting to extend the outreach of consultations? The awkward truth might be that there is a ‘limit’ on the number of people who will ever actively engage with a consultation. A lot of people, almost certainly the majority of the population, rarely engage politically until an issue comes to their door. In the old days, it might have been derided as NIMBY-ism, but in reality, it may well be more a case of ‘limited hours in a day’.
With an increasingly activist youth, however, it will be interesting to see if we see an uptick in response rates to consultations. Great strides are already being made (and have been accelerated by the covid-19 pandemic) in expanding consultation accessibility, and we’re seeing great efforts by many consultors to make their consultations more digital. These advances have been accompanied by an increase in awareness of various other forms of participation, but many of these are often misunderstood or contentious in their nature and need much refinement before they will be able to properly take their place as part of the regular tools used by decision-makers.
The Institute has always been at the forefront of developing better consultation and engagement processes and practices and is a staunch defender of the place of consultation and engagement as a core element of a healthy and functional democracy. There is always however room for development and improvement. Amplifying voices, and making people not only heard, but also feel that they have been heard can be one of the many positive results of a well-thought-out engagement process, and whatever developments are made in countering the English feeling of disconnect as expressed by Prof Wyn Jones, we feel sure that consultation and engagement should play a key part.