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’.

  • slug

    “This Participation and Involvement Award will recognise those in the public sector who are making effective strides towards meaningful engagement and purposeful consultation.”

    “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,”

    You nearly stumped me on this one. But, finally, I would like to nominate Northern Ireland Railways for handing out questionnaires to passengers consulting on what features we would like in the new trains to be bought for introduction 2010 onwards e.g.: how much would we like a power connection for your laptop, preference for aeroplane style seating in twos (all facing the same way) versus traditional style in groups of four round tables, etc.

  • DK

    Whoever is responsible for children’s play areas deserves a nomination as these have got consitently better over the last few years. Is it maybe Playboard?

  • Jean Baudrillard

    The ultimate aim of engagement should be some form of participatory democracy – where people have a direct say in what their government does- and the opportunity to change it.

    (This is based on the assumption that electing a politican makes little difference to the bureaucratic juggernaut in NI – which I think is a fairly safe one.)

    Northern Ireland government bodies do not wish to cede power to citizens. They have enough difficulty with the prospect of ceding it to elected MLAs.

    Most consultation here really is about rubber-stamping previously agreed decisions. Very rarely will the process result in any meaningful change.

    I’m thinking specifically of DSD’s dire Neighbourhood Renewal programme, the purpose of which was to place priority-setting for deprived areas in the hands of the people who live there. The outcome has been a fanciful wishlist which departments have yet to respond to – three years later. It has led to huge levels of cynicism about engagement and has set back the (fairly admirable) principles of neighbourhood renewal back ten years.

    (I’ll have to think harder to come up with a paean of praise…)

  • JB: You say “some form of participatory democracy – where people have a direct say in what their government does- and the opportunity to change it.”

    YOu then go on to say that…

    “Northern Ireland government bodies do not wish to cede power to citizens. They have enough difficulty with the prospect of ceding it to elected MLAs.”

    Surely the happy medium is that engagement should be designed to give elected representatives the quality of information that they need to make decisions, and that the question of MLAs being able to compete with the bureaucracies is the bigger question?

    I’d argue that it’s harder to make the case for stronger MLAs until you have that active dialogue that they can tune into in the first place. For this reason, I’d say that encouraging this kind of participation is kinda important.

  • Jean Baudrillard

    Paulie – fair point.

    However, I don’t think engagement is meaningful or sustainable unless the citizen can see a link between the process they are asked to take part in and actual changes on the ground.

    If engagement is just used as a sounding board (eg, allowing MLAs to test public reaction) it becomes a quite passive process. This results is two outcomes:
    1. people only use the process a chance to whinge
    2. they eventually get bored and stop participating

    Alternatively, if it’s seen as a way of getting things done – then people will take part.

    One proviso though – people need to realise the consequences of their proposals (ie, if you want a new community centre in your local area then that may mean less money out there to spend on other things – facilities for the elderly, etc. -at the moment this doesn’t happen.)

  • Dave Newman

    I would like to nominate the Northern Ireland Youth Forum. Time and time again, the young people who run it take turgid consultation documents from officials, and turn them into lively issues discussed by young people willing to spend their own time, outside school, discussing them. They do everything using informal youth work practice, not the off-putting formal ways that many agencies use when doing the consultation themselves (and far from the NIO who got caned for never talking to any young people about ASBOs a few years ago).

  • I would like to nominate WIMPS – Where is My Public Servant. They do a tremendous job of getting young people involved and engaged in local politics by holding their public representatives accountable and using New Media in creative ways to provide open channels of communication between these representatives and young people in Ireland. It’s a true model of participative democracy.

  • Tracey Smyth

    I would like to nominate W.I.M.P.S. website for innovatively and creatively engaging young people in our democratic process.

  • Kids R Us

    I’d like to nominate the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People. Their URVoice consultation seemed to be a good model of how to actually go to where the people concerned are, rather than wait pathetically, for them to come to you. Six towns in three days, a click-through ad on bebo.com, youtube and the IFA and GAA websites, as well as going to dozens of schools…in other words not waiting for people (in this case young people) to come to you. Oh, and I think, though they haven’t said it yet publicly there have been almost 2,000 respondents.

  • I have to declare an interest Kids R Us as I was involved in the NICCY URVoice consultation (and it was bloody hard work!). The final results are being published on 28th November, and yes it was almost 2,000 people who responded. Importantly 1,500 were children and young people.

    Dave – The NIO’s failure to consult on ASBOs was rejected as grounds to halt introduction of ASBOs, but the Equality Commission slapped their wrists to little or no effect for their failure to consult with young people.

    Tracy & Lina – WIMPS is a great project – I clearly remember WIMPS and the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People marching 108 people up the steps of Stormont on Universal Day of the Child calling for better representation for young people. MLAs nearly shat themselves 1) why there were teenagers hanging out at Stormont and 2) how they could get a photograph showing they were down with the kids!

    NICCY and WIMPs for a joint award…

  • I wish to nominate Public Achievement and its WIMPS project in particular, where it young participants are also involved in the project’s design and implementation. Isn’t this a good role model for attempting something further where local residents/citizens are more directly involved in design and implementation of decisions that affect them?

  • democrachick

    I would like to nominate WIMPS, the 108 campaign that has been mentioned was just one example of how they not only engage with young people and political representatives but how they can work with other organisations (in this instance Niccy). This joined up approach is what we need if we really want people to sit up and take notice of something we are saying.

  • Rona & Harry

    We would like to nominate WIMPS – the work they do is worthwhile, not say essential for our young people.
    Rona & Harry

  • Lynda Russell

    i would like to nominate WIMPS because of it’s innovative approach which is relevant to young people

  • Chris Madden

    Where is my Public Servant (WIMPS) particularly deserves this award. WIMPS has been at the forefront of Northern Ireland politics for the past year now. They interveiw politicians and ultimately hold them directly accountable in a way that other jorunalists can not. Politicians are now coming directly to WIMPS and are asking to be interveiwed! WIMPS made headlines last year when they ran a campaign called the 108 campaign to call for the estbalishment of a Northern Ireland Youth Assembly. They organised a huge rally at Stormont, met with OFMDFM officials and with the Speaker of the Assembly. WIMPS has done a lot of stuff in just one year!