The Slugger Awards 2008: Participation and involvement

Yesterday’s regional newspapers (Monday 11th August) carried a DSD advert entitled: “Formal Consultation on Equality Impact Assessment (EQIA) of: Northside Urban village Draft Regeneration Framework.” It witters on about contacting the address, clicking on the consultation zone, alternative formats, telephone, fax and text phone numbers and so forth. I am sure all those things comply fully with The Consultation Institute’s charter of best practice, but do they encourage and stimulate effective engagement between the state and the citizen? Slugger suggests not.
This Participation and Involvement Award will recognise those in the public sector who are making effective strides towards meaningful engagement and purposeful consultation. What forms of participation are to be encouraged? Is a public meeting at 8pm in a windowless hotel room with beer-stained carpets, trestle tables and tepid sausage rolls going to attract you to answer a public authority’s question on your aspirations? If not, what does?

We know many who do for example. There is lots of good practice in using citizen’s panels, effective focus groups, polling and surveys, stakeholder workshops and interactive mechanisms over the internet. Deliberative polling, ‘who wants to be a millionaire’-type voting pads have been seen in NI, and even some electric old-fashioned public meetings on planning, dumps and hospital closures… but how do public bodies ‘weigh’ these manifestations of public opinion?

This last was one of the key recommendations that Gary Kass of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technologies mentioned in his 2001 pamphlet Open Channels:

… the value of any dialogue may be brought into question if it is not seen to command an audience, or is used merely to legitimise previously made decisions. Some researchers, practitioners and commentators have warned that unless those wishing to embark upon public dialogue, clearly understand these dimensions, there is a danger that public dialogue may be conducted in an atmosphere of cynical tokenism, leading to bland exercises in public relations.

And, to return to the poor DSD above (for which apologies for breaking my own ‘negativity’ rule on this thread) maybe this is good practice – the experts on equality are alerted to scrutinise the process in question, and everything is open and transparent. So long as the body listens to the feedback. Some don’t, many do. Tell us about those who have impressed you, please.

Come on, let’s have your paeans of praise for those public bodies – and there are over 250 of them operating in Northern Ireland – who have excited you with their efforts to engage, more than just to “cover my back”, by indicating that an advert has been placed in the daily newspapers and therefore ‘if you didn’t know about it, it was your own fault’.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty