How-to politics

Geoff Mulgan's new organisation Involve seeks to 'put people at the heart of decision-making'. But what decisions, and why?

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics UK

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‘[This section] is not meant to be a guide to choosing the right way to involve people, a list of all existing methods, or a “how to” guide.’ So People and Participation, a smart-looking pamphlet from the newly-established Involve network that seeks to ‘put people at the heart of decision-making’, introduces its section on ‘Methods for participation’ (1).

The trouble is, the disclaimer doesn’t wash. When over half a publication is dedicated to listing every conceivable method of public consultation and participation, from Citizens’ Juries to Democs (‘Deliberative Meetings of Citizens’, a ‘conversation game enabling small groups to discuss public policy issues’, in which no experts are needed ‘as pre-prepared cards carry the necessary facts’), complete with pretty but befuddling diagrams designed to show how each method compares in terms of length of process, budget, type of outcome and so on, the only way it can be read is as a ‘how to’ guide to choosing the right way to involve people, taking your pick of options from one great big list.

All of which begs the same question you started out with: What’s the point in finding creative new ways to ‘involve’ people, when it’s far from clear what they are to be involved in?

The Involve network (2) starts out with the right kind of idea. A new organisation, established in June 2005 and chaired by Geoff Mulgan, co-founder of the influential think-tank Demos and former director of the prime minister’s strategy unit, its starting point is the recognition that the declining levels of political participation among the British public are a problem for democracy. Involve aims to confront this situation through stimulating discussion of the nature of the problem and possible solutions, and in the past few months has brought out two publications: the snazzy People and Participation, and Post Party Politics, a wordier, worthier collection of essays produced in plain black and white, and launched on 16 February at Involve’s first reception (3).

The spirit of this endeavour is open-minded and proactive, stripped of nostalgia for the politics of the past and honest enough about the depth of the participation problem today. ‘Someone has turned off the people’, states the blurb on the back of Post Party Politics, while the introduction, by Involve co-founder Richard Wilson, talks baldly about a ‘crisis of legitimacy’ and the lack of meaningful political choice: ‘If people can’t tell the difference between the parties they can not make a real choice, and there is no democratic legitimacy.’

This shows a refreshing realism compared with the posturing of mainstream political parties at election time, or the year-round pretence by a variety of campaign groups and NGOs that low turnout at elections doesn’t matter because people are so fully engaged in the ‘new’ politics of petition-signing and consumer-product boycotting. The fact that the dominant image used on Involve’s website and in its publications is that of an empty conference hall or committee room, rather than contrived snaps of ‘ordinary people’ gaily participating in local meetings, indicates a certain willingness to face up to the scale of the problem.

Participation is not a ‘panacea’, writes Geoff Mulgan in People and Participation – indeed, ‘turning government into a public meeting can get in the way of making difficult decisions’. The section titled ‘More participation is not necessarily better’ quotes the Institute of Ideas’ Claire Fox on a similar point: ‘Under current conditions greater participation leads to absolving the need for politicians to be leaders and have ideas.’ Bad participatory practice, warns the pamphlet, ‘creates mistrust, wastes people’s time and money and can seriously undermine future attempts at public engagement’.

But despite making these salient points, the Involve network seems to have embarked upon a trajectory that pursues a rather well-trodden road to nowhere – emphasising the process of participation rather than the content, and focusing on the practical as opposed to the ideological. Engaging people in designing better public services or more efficient institutions will not solve the democratic crisis, in which people feel fundamentally estranged from a discussion about what issues and ideas are important in society, and how we can make a difference to our collective future.

The precursor to political engagement, surely, is a public sense of what there is to be engaged in – ideas about the future, conflicting proposals for change, an understanding of people’s ability to have an impact upon their world and why it is in their interests to do so. It is this sense of political choice and the impact of political action that has been lost with the decline of party politics, and that cannot be remedied by simply involving more people in the dregs of decision-making that characterise contemporary politics. From Citizens’ Juries to ‘Democs’, the political elite can experiment with as many different participatory tricks as it likes, and it might even find itself talking to a few more people. But so what, in the end? Is connection and dialogue what democracy and politics is really all about? Or is the focus on involvement an evasion of the bigger challenge – to develop some ideas worth fighting for, through a sense of people as active agents of change rather than passive focus-groups-in-waiting?

In his recent book Setting the People Free: The Story of Democracy, the Cambridge academic John Dunn provides a useful historical overview of the history of democracy as a political form, from Ancient Greece to today (4). Democracy, he argues, is both a word and the embodiment of a set of values. The endurance of the word ‘democracy’ gives the impression of a particular form of governance that has remained intact over time: in fact, the word has changed meanings over history, and is used to describe quite different political forms – most notably, the direct democracy of Athens past compared to the representative democracies that currently dominate the Western world.

More important is the endurance of the basic ideas bound up with democracy, to do with the assertion of self-interest in the public domain and the recognition of a collective power and will embodied by a particular society. It is this historic desire for agency among the general public that has given shape and strength to the democratic impulse, whatever political form that might take at any given time.

Dunn’s ‘story of democracy’, while engaging and informative, is not a perfect history. It places rather too much history-making power in the hands of political leaders as opposed to wider social forces, and the extent to which it presents democracy today simply as the legitimation of all-powerful political leaders underestimates the political elites’ own insecurity about the lack of public participation. But Setting the People Free does at least remind us that democracy is something more profound and intangible than clever networking tricks devised by the political elite to ‘engage’ more people in a ‘dialogue’ about the building of that road, or the running of that hospital.

Involve’s Post Party Politics, on the other hand, cannot avoid denigrating democracy in the process of updating it. Yes, it’s as well to recognise that party politics ain’t what it used to be, that there can be no harking back to a Golden Age, and that finding new ways of ‘doing’ politics is far preferable simply to giving up. But in focusing on the process of involvement rather than the content of engagement, the ideas end up rather insipid and familiar: summed up by the emphasis on connection.

If there was ever an example of Death By Inappropriate Quotation, it is given by the writer EM Forster, whose little phrase ‘Only connect!’ has been appropriated by everyone from IT buffs to counselling services – and now is seen as something of a rallying cry by participation-hungry politicos.

In Post Party Politics, Perry Walker of the New Economics Foundation talks about rejecting political mechanisms that create a culture of division and seeking out those that help to create a culture of connection: ‘And throughout the process of discovering and fine tuning these, let our watchword and our inspiration come from EM Forster: “only connect”.’ Or to put it another way – in a chapter on ‘The Power of Shopping’, Ian Cook, Michelle Harrison and Charlotte Lacey conclude: ‘We can and must connect people through the most mundane acts of their daily lives to some of the most significant political issues of our time.’

Connect, only connect – if only the political elite could just get the hang of what makes its audience tick, goes the view, that alone will help restore the fragile fabric of our political culture. But if only those who persist in appropriating Forster remembered the actual quote: ‘Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.’ (Howards End, Chapter 22)

It’s not only connection that counts, but what is being connected: the prose and the passion. In our time of post-party politics, prose has become the language of management, and passion the practical questions of where best to build road bridges or site wind farms. To take this discussion on further, we need to go back to first principles: asking not ‘how do we involve people?’ but ‘what do we involve them in?’

Read on:

spiked-issue: Election 2005

(1) Download People and Participation

(2) Involve website

(3) Download Post Party Politics

(4) Setting the People Free: the story of democracy, by John Dunn, Atlantic Books 2005 (buy this book from Amazon (UK)

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Topics Politics UK


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