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Over the last decade, public consultations have become an integral part of public policy in the UK. With the emergence of the ‘empowerment agenda’ the pressure on local public services to involve local citizens and communities in their decision-making has continued to increase. Engaging and involving citizens in local decision-making is no longer the preserve of progressive, forward-thinking government departments or public services but a statutory duty.

Over the last decade, public consultations have become an integral part of public policy in the UK. With the emergence of the ‘empowerment agenda’ the pressure on local public services to involve local citizens and communities in their decision-making has continued to increase. Engaging and involving citizens in local decision-making is no longer the preserve of progressive, forward-thinking government departments or public services but a statutory duty.

Situating the voices of citizen at the heart of public policy decision-making is something all public consultation and engagement should aspire to. When designed and delivered effectively, public engagement should harness and galvanise the potential and confidence of citizens and communities to solve their own problems.

Public engagement should deliver both de facto power (real power to influence change) and subjective power (increased sense of personal efficacy) – see my report Activating Empowerment (2009). This is rooted in the real demands of citizens themselves who want greater capacity to influence and actively shape their lived environment. The latest Citizenship Survey data shows that 79% of citizens consider it very important to have real influence over local decisions. The problem is that this civic energy (i.e. the desire for influence) is not been being harnessed. Indeed, the new Place Survey data shows only 22% of citizens feel they can actually influence decisions affecting the UK.

This cannot be differentiated from the way most public services tend to view public engagement and consultation. Rather than viewing it as a process of exchange in which power is redistributed from public services to citizen, public engagement is all to often viewed as an end in itself. When public engagement processes fail to ‘reward’ engagement with real decision-making capacity (a) the public consultation process is diminished (b) it deepens public cynicism and (c) devalues public engagement methods.

For the braver public services committed to redistributing power and influence to citizens the challenge is how to tackle its unequal distribution. David Halpern – Director of Research at the Institute for Government – makes this point very clearly:

“It is said that ‘liberty is power cut into small pieces’, but the pieces are by no means evenly distributed in the Britain of today, and on some measures have become less so. While levels of voting may have fallen modestly, levels of alternative political engagement have risen dramatically. These activities are strongly skewed to the more affluent and more educated”

In the UK today, one in five people have absolutely no engagement in political life at all and this minority is overwhelmingly dominated by citizens most lacking in financial and social capital. As Halpern rightly argues, the signs are that this gap is only going to increase in the future. This threatens the representative of our democratic institutions and points to the failure of public consultations (as they stand and are often carried out) to provide more than a talk-shop for citizens who already recognise and actualise their capacity to influence change.

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