I have been a doing a few interviews on George Osborne’s announcements today about the spending review. This seems to be on the back of my role in the Big Conversation, a process I developed and managed when I worked for Tony Blair.
I have been happy to admit that the BC wasn’t a proper process of deliberation but an attempt by an unpopular leadership (in the wake of the invasion of Iraq) to show it was listening to its Party and the public. The main innovation – which now seems to be copied by everyone – was to move from a form of public meeting in which the big cheeses sit on the platform and the hoi polloi in rows in the hall to one where the ministers and the public sat round tables together having something approaching a proper conversation.
Which isn’t to say nothing came out of the process: A recurrent theme in the meetings was the need to help parents balance work and family life. This made an impact on ministers resulting in stronger commitments in the subsequent manifesto.
Today, I have been making three points about the Coalition’s commitment to consultation:
1. I applaud the aims. When I was in Downing Street I argued fruitlessly for public consultation before the spending reviews. Of course, it would have been much easier then as the decisions were about extra money not cuts, but the Treasury was reluctant enough to hear to the views of Number Ten let alone the wider public
2. There are two big problems with consultations and both may be even greater when it’s spending cuts under discussion. The first, which I have spoken about many times before, is that public opinion doesn’t add up. In the phrase of Ben Page from IPSOS Mori ‘the British people want Swedish welfare on American taxes’. The second is the tendency for the debate to be dominated by special interest groups shroud waving about the impact of cuts on their sector. This doesn’t necessarily make for a particularly informative or balanced debate.
3. If the Coalition wants to be really radical and to grasp the opportunity of getting public endorsement for tough decisions it should undertake a proper process of deliberation, such as is seen in the best forms of participatory budgeting. These involve members of the public spending time getting to know the figures and the kinds of choices policy-maker face. On the whole, the public come up with solutions which are sensible, and usually not a million miles from the ones being considered by the policy makers. The risk, of course, is that the participants opt strongly for policies opposed by the Government; higher tax rises rather than spending cuts, for example. It is much more difficult to dismiss views which have been arrived at through proper deliberation.
As I say, I spent years in the Labour Party and Number Ten trying to get officials and ministers to use proper, robust forms of deliberation. But I made very little progress. I was momentarily excited when Gordon Brown, upon taking office as PM, announced he would be holding ‘citizens juries’. But they soon turned out to be nothing of the sort and in fact closely resembled…yes, the Big Conversation.
So, I would be deeply impressed if the Coalition was willing to use proper deliberative methods of public engagement but also I have to admit very surprised.