On the problem of consultation as “cynical tokenism”…

Jeff Peel and Bobballs both have posts on an issue that’s perplexing both of them: the possible withdrawal of funding for places in the Preparatory Departments of 16 Grammar Schools. As BobBalls notes “the Protestant middle-classes don’t tend to be a tinderbox for revolutionary spirit.” But he also points out that the motive cannot be about saving money:

“Under the Common Funding Formula (CFF), the Education Department offers primary schools £2,911 in funding per pupil. The Department offers prep school pupils £808 in funding – and parents pay the balance in fees.

Ruane wants to pull the plug on funding prep places. But before anyone shouts ‘Good on yer Caitriona, that’ll save a few quid for the public purse’, think again.

How many parents will really be able to absorb an additional £800 in annual fees right now? Not very many – in fact, a sizeable proportion would no doubt be forced to remove a child from their school of choice.

If Ruane gets her way and destroys preps, more pupils will go to primaries. Which involves moving lots of children from the £808 funding bracket to the £2,911 bracket. If just a quarter of the prep population switches to primaries then the taxpayer would have to fork out an additional c.£5 million.

This at a time when expenditure must be cut by £370 million and the onus is on cuts.”

And as Jeff points out, “The Review acknowledges that there is a value for money case for continuing this funding but relies on the assertion that this is outweighed by “equity considerations”. More interestingly, from my point of view, it seems that the department’s budgeting already accounts for the likely change in expenditure, even though the consultation only ends tomorrow.

Asking for opinions on a subject the Minister has apparently already made up her mind is just one reason why the gap between government and people is growing daily. The challenge for all parties will be to connect with the interests of your voters between elections as well as during the four yearly election campaigns.

This is precisely the kind of tin ear consultation our workshop on involving more people in policy making on Monday seeks move beyond. Gary Kass in his 2001 pamphlet referred to such practices as “cynical tokenism”, so it is clearly not just a Northern Irish problem:

… 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.

If you feel strongly about the subject, you can do what Jeff suggests, and get in touch with your MLA and let them know how you feel. Or you could try telling the Minister through her own ‘consultation’ process?

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