#PDNI: Consultation in the 21st Century for Northern Ireland and beyond…

Consultation is a bit like sex. If you are not enjoying it, you are probably are doing something wrong. As you will already know from Alan there was a fascinating seminar (that sadly I couldn’t get to) which asks how policy-making might be done in the age of austerity?

It hardly bear repeating that the world has changed. The internet from its very earliest days as a home for software building geeks to share ideas and harsh banter, has allowed people to connect with one another. And because people could connect, they did.

But the social media revolution the net has give rise to has fundamentally altered the environment in which policy-making takes place. Those processes will have to be re-engineered to accommodate the new realities in which many of us ordinary folk are living.

This poses real problems for those inside government. How do you communicate with people outside the bureaucratic bubble, when all the traditional forms you ever used are slowly falling apart and losing processing resources themselves.

Despite the reality of PRs outnumbering journos, there is also pressure on government, both financial and political, to lower the amount spent on communicating with the various critical publics that rely on (and pay for) the kinds of functional and regulatory services that come under the public purview.

That pressure is not going away any time soon. As one political insider put to me yesterday, “we’ve had 12 years of unremitting growth, we’re now in for twelve years of unremitting pain”.

The internet, of course is (or should be) low cost, and there are other low tech opportunities to connect with a willing and intelligent commons which can flow fluidly towards matter of it own interest and far beyond the highly interested confines of the lobby.

Of course it certainly matters how you communicate. The mere appeal to authority doesn’t work any more. From the Brent Spar incident when Shell won the scientific case, put lost the public one, it has long been recognised that this is a ‘show me’, not a ‘tell me’ paradigm.

Institutional walls are increasingly porous and, as Rhion Jones of the Consultation Institute, rightly points out the expectations on the part of (some parts of) the public that they be included are now sky high. If you’ve not picked up on Alan’s post here’s Rhion’s audioboo précis of the White Paper:

In the preface Rhion identifies four contemporary challenges:

Most prominent is the accelerating impact of Government expenditure reductions, but equally significant is the institutional instability caused by reorganisations and other changes; third is a quiet revolution in public expectations for involvement as people use social media and related technologies to run campaigns to argue their case. Finally there is the clamour for evidence-based policy-making and the acceptance of transparency. Modern policy-making is now done as if in a goldfish bowl; everyone can see what is going on.

This last is critical. And it is one of the things that makes senior civil servants and politicians almost terminally nervous. Yet it is something that should be seen as a critical advantage.

The key is, as I mentioned in a Q&A recently (youtube to be added), to front end the risk of asking people what they think when:

– one, it’s less expensive;

– two, it helps bed down the initiative with a wider provenance so that if and when a public firestorm comes, you know better than the journos and the bloggers why you’ve done what you’ve done.

– three, you make better policy if only by using public intelligence to weed out the dead ends.

It also allows public (no less than private) institutions an ‘in’ at the front end. This is something that today’s white paper reiterates:

…four years ago, the Sunningdale Institute pinpointed major weaknesses in the Whitehall civil service model, by demonstrating that policy-makers were too far removed from the realities of front-line service delivery to develop effective solutions.

Which is all very fine. But in the British (and Irish) Civil Service is, as has been said, there are ways that things are done. And admitting publicly that you don’t know quite what to do is not one of them.

I heard a long time ago from a wiser head than mine, that the only real legitimate reason for asking a question is that you want (or better, need) to hear the answer.

Confessing (with a functional purpose) that ignorance in public can be a powerful to start the kinds of conversations that provide the ground work for functional, 21st Century policy.

There is, across the west, a general loss of confidence in the public service. It’s given way to a sense that everyone is out to get us. That requires a shift from the back to the front foot.

To close, here’s an extract from a talk I gave in Washington just before Christmas on the need to place ‘value’ as the core concern in any attempt to engage the public:

You can pick up more the feed from Twitter on today’s event by following the hashtag: #pdni

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