Not too slow, not too fast

August 3, 2010 by
Filed under: Uncategorized 


Enthusiasts for the Big Society will have mixed feelings having perused the Guardian today.

On the one hand the paper reports a survey by YouGov undertaken for the think tank Demos (I must admit to being ambivalent about think tanks using superficial opinion polls to found out anything much significant, but this one does seem interesting). You can read the article for yourself or go to the source material but the gist is that the crucial swing voters who abandoned Labour between 2005 and 2010 tended to be more sceptical (indeed hostile) towards state activity than more traditional Labour supporters. It seems these voters are open to the Big Society message that Government should do less and civil society (that means us) more.      

On the other hand the paper reports the results of an initial attempt at crowd sourcing to shape Government policy. It seems to have fallen flat. Not many people got involved and those that did will be disappointed (but perhaps not surprised ) to find no evidence that their ideas have made any impact on policy. The quotation in the article from Simon Burall, director of Involve – a group advising bodies on consultation – is right on the button. He said:

“You have to give the government some credit for trying to do this, but badly designed consultations like this are worse than no consultations at all. They diminish trust and reduce the prospect that people will engage again. This is a dangerous problem for a government that is going to have to take people with them when they make very difficult decisions.”     

That bad practice is worse than nothing is generally true of all forms of public engagement, for example, Gordon Brown’s ‘citizen’s juries which turned out to be no more than consultation meetings.

The problem for the Coalition, and for David Cameron in particular, is that, on the one hand, it needs to address public scepticism by showing it is doing things differently from the start while, on the other, it will suffer equal if not more loss of face if it launches ideas which are not well thought through or makes exaggerated claims about public enthusiasm (as has Mr Gove about parental aspirations to run schools).

The YouGov poll shows key voters are sympathetic to aspects of the Big Society argument.  But it will take skilled statecraft and effective communication to get the right balance between building momentum and avoiding false starts.

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11 Comments on Not too slow, not too fast

  1. carl allen on Tue, 3rd Aug 2010 7:11 pm
  2. Consultation is not a substitute for analysis of an issue.

    Nor should ministers’ bright ideas be simply placed out for consultation.

    Indeed the question is how long before the population tire of over-consultation rather than bad consultation practices.

    And between over-consultation and bad consultation practices, pity the citizen.

    Big question … just what is the government going to take responsibility for within England?

    Now the point of Big Society is implementation but government refuses to systematically think and fund the implementation.

    Worse yet, except for the cohorts of the 5,000 legion, government refuses to educate/train the citizenry on implementation.

  3. Duncan on Tue, 3rd Aug 2010 8:22 pm
  4. Matthew,

    It would appear Demos neglected to mention some findings.

    http://don-paskini.blogspot.com/2010/08/demos-poll-only-15-want-to-be-part-of.html

    “the poll found that 35% of people said that “I’d like to be more active in my community but I don’t have time what with the pressures of work and family”, 19% ‘it’s not my job to look after my community, that’s what we pay our taxes and elect politicians for”, and 15% “I enjoy being active in my community and get involved whenever I have the time and feel it is worthwhile to do so”. 25% picked “none of them”, with 7% “don’t know”.”

  5. Michelle Wright on Wed, 4th Aug 2010 1:12 pm
  6. It is good news to hear that voters seem open to the ‘Big Society’ – the idea will only work if people embrace the culture of helping themselves. I agree that it is imperative that it will take ‘skilled statecraft and effective communication to get the right balance between building momentum and avoiding false starts.’ To add it would seem that people like the idea of being empowered but the Coalition has not yet created the right message to get them to act. The emphasis is being placed on creating an Obama-esq momentum towards mass action and not on convincing people to do basic neighbourly things more often – get them used to doing little things and bigger things will come.

    However, I think you miss the point when looking at the government’s results on Crowdsourcing. I am not surprised to read that ‘not many people got involved,’ in initial consultation exercises and that there is ‘no evidence that their ideas have made any impact on policy.’ The focus needs to be on why this is the case? People are just not used to directly engaging with government. Turnout in elections is rising but far from extreme (65.1% in 2010, local elections often much worse) and as such a culture where Crowdsourcing can flourish doesn’t exist. Change this and the government can reap the benefits.

    If you asked the founders of Istockphoto or Threadless, two of the best commercial examples of Crowdsourcing, whether their first efforts of engagement were successful, the answer would be no. However, over time as more people have become involved both have harnessed the power of the crowd for massive commercial gain. My message to government – be patient, start small, nurture a culture of engagement and involvement and over time the ‘big society’ may just become a reality.

  7. Jamie on Thu, 5th Aug 2010 2:12 pm
  8. I agree that poor consultation is possibly worse than none. It can lead to greater feelings of mistrust, not being listened to etc. I agree there are plenty of examples of poorly constructed consultations, either designed without insight or expertise or sometimes (and more worryingly) designed to appear to listen whilst having no intention.

    Either way the challenge appears to be identifying the requirements of an effective and credible approach to consultation. This will stop consultation fatigue, take steps to building trust and understanding whilst providing a visible impact – both short and long term. Anyone got any good examples, as I am currently building a portfolio of international best practice on this issue? (please email: [email protected])

  9. Margaret Bowker on Thu, 5th Aug 2010 5:15 pm
  10. Demos has made a good point about the swing vote, but Simon Burall’s commentary was, for me, too definite. I was one of those contributing to The Programme for Government website after the ‘crowd sourcing’ was over, but opinions were still being invited on other subjects. I found it a positive experience. There was easy access, no red sign saying ‘you’ve forgotten your password again, haven’t you?’ and a good sized box to type in, all rather important to a nervous poster. Because that’s what this is probably about; and there’s nothing wrong with connecting with people, asking them for their ideas, there would have been some good ones that will surface in the outcoming detail, and making them feel part of it, which they truly are, and sometimes a part with a difficult road to run. Back in 2008, I remember posting that the 21st century was going to be for the people, politics for its own sake was going to fade, and I still believe it. All I’ve got to do now is find a website where I can say that I’m very concerned about how the cuts are going to affect local authorities; that section’s time was up; and some of them are really anxious.

  11. SIqbal on Fri, 6th Aug 2010 7:05 am
  12. Trying to deliver Big Society is hard work. It often means ‘re-wiring’ professsionals to think about what is really in scope for consultation and seeking out and engaging people in ways that we are not likely to have done before.

    It also has the potential to disrupt traditional planning-based approaches to service delivery because consultation responses can be…..yes unpredictable. If we’re serious about listening it will take time to work those different views in.

    I’ve found that in consultation events lay members of the public sometimes say it is difficult to make decisions being asked of them because of insufficient evidence to base them on. I think people do know instinctively about the things that are not working in their area and should be confident about that. But it should also be highlighted that the views of even hundreds of people will be used alongside evidence and professional knowledge. It is perhaps important to be clear about how that is worked out.

  13. Michelle Wright on Fri, 6th Aug 2010 11:41 am
  14. It is good news to hear that voters seem open to the ‘Big Society’ – the idea will only work if people embrace the culture of helping themselves. I agree that it is imperative that it will take ‘skilled statecraft and effective communication to get the right balance between building momentum and avoiding false starts.’ To add it would seem that people like the idea of being empowered but the Coalition has not yet created the right message to get them to act. The emphasis is being placed on creating an Obama-esq momentum towards mass action and not on convincing people to do basic neighbourly things more often – get them used to doing little things and bigger things will come.

    However, I think you miss the point when looking at the government’s results on Crowdsourcing. I am not surprised to read that ‘not many people got involved,’ in initial consultation exercises and that there is ‘no evidence that their ideas have made any impact on policy.’ The focus needs to be on why this is the case? People are just not used to directly engaging with government. Turnout in elections is rising but far from extreme (65.1% in 2010, local elections often much worse) and as such a culture where Crowdsourcing can flourish doesn’t exist. Change this and the government can reap the benefits.

    If you asked the founders of Istockphoto or Threadless, two of the best commercial examples of Crowdsourcing, whether their first efforts of engagement were successful, the answer would be no. However, over time as more people have become involved both have harnessed the power of the crowd for massive commercial gain. My message to government – be patient, start small, nurture a culture of engagement and involvement and over time the ‘big society’ may just become a reality.

  15. TimHood on Sat, 7th Aug 2010 5:30 am
  16. Although I have conducted various crowd-sourcing campaigns for government departments, my company wasn’t involved in this particular project. But I have watched with sympathy as some of the talented civil servants and the excellent company involved have come in for undeserved criticism. It is true that as an initial attempt by this new government, it might have backfired slightly but it is also entirely predictable that both political opponents and internet sceptics have written it off as an abject failure (this is not aimed at your considered piece above, Matthew!).

    There are two main criticisms. Firstly, that the various crowd-sourcing web projects generated a lot of semi-literate comments and unpalatable ideas. Secondly, that there have not yet been any concrete policy changes as a result.

    Crowd-sourcing on a mass scale, by its very nature, is a populist activity. In fact this type of exercise might best be described as tabloid-consultation. Much of the content generated came from people who express themselves in tabloid-like language, which is unsurprising since that is what they digest when they read newspapers and watch popular TV.

    Personally, I don’t read tabloids because I don’t much care for the tone and simplicity with which they express ideas- ideas that I often find repugnant. But I recognise that tabloids are part of a free press and that they keep millions informed and generate some kind of feeling of involvement in society for their readers.

    So the same applies to large-scale crowd-sourcing of ideas and views on government policy: it has its place in direct government-to-people communications, as much as briefing the tabloid press has its place in government-to-media communications. Those of us who don’t like the tone and the content will have to live with it.

    True, there was an element of hacking, spamming, abusiveness and general nastiness on the sites that I think took the organisers by surprise. But it was the first time it has been done on this scale and I know they have learnt lessons.

    So to conclude on the first point: crowd-sourcing will always generate a lot of tabloid-like opinions of varying usefulness and acceptability (to us) but it has its place alongside more meticulously designed consultation methods. Indeed, this government is using other methods including another populist approach, PM Direct. They should probably be explaining this better and presenting the mix as a more coherent long term programme.

    The second objection- that government response to ideas has been formulaic and impersonal, that nothing has come of it and people will therefore not participate again- is stronger. It would have been better to do this over a much longer period, with separate crowd-sourcing projects between individual departments and targeted online communities relevant to their work (e.g: Ministry of Defence asking the Army Rumour Service, as has happened in the past). Crowd-sourcing can be done with different sized crowds and crowds with common experience: it doesn’t mean inviting everybody all at once.

    So will this reduce the prospect that people will participate again? I don’t think so. I think this will be seen by most as the first large scale government-to-people communications exercise and people will quickly forget about the problems. If the next one looks better, they’ll give it another go.

    It is easy to criticise with hindsight: the new government tried to deliver on their commitment to widely consulting the public, rushed it and got it wrong first time. It was too broad brush and they weren’t prepared to process and act on the ideas quickly enough.But at least they tried and they tried using a small UK innovator, not a huge consultancy like Capita or a trendy, hyper-financed West Coast website.Next time they’ll do better, I’m sure.

    Don’t write-off popular digital consultation- it has its place!

    [...] was also criticism of "online gimmicks" while Matthew Taylor of the RSA noted the presentational problems which arise from claiming to do things different while in practice being the same: "The problem for [...]

  17. mas on Tue, 10th Aug 2010 9:23 pm
  18. “They diminish trust and reduce the prospect that people will engage again.”

    Firstly only the most naive would think trust could be much further diminished.

    Secondly there’s a difference between genuinely trying to use new technology to alter how decisions are made, and dressing up what amount to regular old talking shops.

    No doubt some involved believed they were trying to achieve the former, and to an extent some of the previous comments are credible in so far as it will take time for these things to develop. But the bottom line is it doesn’t matter what you call it or how you implement it, if the people making the decisions aren’t willing to listen there’s little point talking.

    And then thirdly and related to that is that people will continue to ‘engage’ almost regardless. Not because they feel they’re making a difference, but because like me they’re well aware that just about everything they publish on the web goes unnoticed and makes no impact whatsoever…….. but still they do it! And here I go again :-)

    I like the points made about grammar in the previous comments. Reminds me very much of the clashes between ‘real people’ and ‘suits’ during regular consultations. Interesting how the web can bring different people directly together in ways they may not in real life and yet the same reactions occur.

  19. Commentary round-up « Policy Progress on Tue, 17th Aug 2010 9:49 pm
  20. [...] society, eh? How Cameroonian! I’m also reminded of George Lakoff’s concept of [...]

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