Tuesday, 25 August 2009

How do we get people to participate when they don't want to?

Some of you may have heard me on Beyond Westminster at the weekend, talking about how we can encourage greater public participation in decision-making, whether it be through primaries, deliberative democracy, citizens' juries, referenda, etc.. I may have come across as a bit sceptical about some of these ideas, as in 'fine in theory but how do we make them work in practice?'
I've just been to an meeting this evening which illustrated this perfectly. (And yes, I am now back in the office, but not for much longer - if only because there's a band tuning up in the Labour Club below, sending rumbling vibrations through my office floor, and I suspect I'm not going to like what I hear!)

It was a PACT (Police and Communities Together) meeting, held in the ultra-modern surroundings of the Bristol Brunel Academy (Really looking forward to good GCSE results from them this week. And incidentally, worth checking out the fitness centre that has now opened there; good to see it being well-used by the local community.)

I wouldn't usually be able to attend because I'd be in Westminster, so I've made a point this summer of pencilling some into my diary. This was my first one, for residents of the St. George and Speedwell areas.
There were two police officers present and two PCSOs. There was me. And there were seven local people, representing five households. Two of them didn't actually live in Bristol but over the border in South Gloucs; they'd come to the meeting because their son had been the victim of an attempted mugging in St George's Park.

We spent a useful enough 45 minutes discussing anti-social behaviour, policing the park, the lack of local youth facilities and a few other issues, but it was hugely disappointing that out a possible catchment area of maybe 10,000 households, the turn-out was so low. I thought perhaps it was because it's August, but then the police officer leading the event said that turnout was almost double what it had been at the previous such meeting, some 10 weeks earlier.

The lack of participation could be down to a number of factors. Maybe people are too busy these days. Maybe they're happy with things the way they are. Maybe they're disillusioned and think nothing would come of it. Maybe they didn't know it was happening... But it illustrates how difficult it is to get such things off the ground. How do we ensure participation is high enough to be meaningful, and the participants generally reflective of the community in question? Would the time of those four police officers perhaps have been better spent out walking the beat, talking to people on the way? Would my time have been better spent doing the same? (I cancelled a canvassing session to be there). Of course you have to start somewhere, but I've seen this happen time and time again. It's only when there's a hugely controversial local issue that people turn out in their droves.

I'm not saying we shouldn't attempt such forms of public engagement, but we have to be careful they aren't seen as a panacea to all problems, or used as a substitute for real action. One of the bugbears of my time as a councillor was how often the need to consult was used by council officers as an excuse not to take difficult decisions, or kicking into the long grass things they didn't want to happen. Yes, people should be consulted on issues which concern them. Of course they should. But we have to make sure it's a genuine consultation, which asks pertinent questions and engages with more than an unrepresentative but vocal minority - and that's sometimes very difficult to achieve, particularly at a very local level.

Anyway, my worst fears were confirmed... the band had been sound-checking with a Bryan Adams song, followed by 'Cum on Feel the Noize' and now 'Alright Now'. I am finding it very difficult to write. Time to go! For perhaps a slightly more coherent account of this, here's the Beyond Westminster clip.


Paul said...

Primaries/Public meetings etc are only any good to the people who turn up. I feel strongly that engaging people through the internet/twitter/facebook gives people information they would not normally receive as we would sit at home complaining but even just following the latest events of your council or MP on twitter gives you valuable information,and has encouraged me to at least follow more politics and local politics.Just going off subject slightly as hardworking as our MPs are for their communities, if you have not voted for them or their party you do feel like you have no say in politics or local politics. Being able to vote for the leader of our country ( I know this sounds a bit Presidential )or even for a leader of your council(A Mayor and cabinet who you vote for every 4 years ) and also your local councillor would make you feel more involved.

Remember Remember said...

Of course hardly anyone turned up.
I can rattle off a whole bunch of reasons. Like nobody trusts thye members of secretive ACPO Ltd.

If (?) you want real participation you can set up an internet forum and tell people about it. No need for people to go to mas meetings and be treated like schoolkids in assembly.
Ooops, never mind, anonymity is not guaranteed. ACPO Ltd. would just put the "troublemakers" on a list and try to get their DNA.

Kevin Matthews said...

How was this meeting publicised?
Very often I read accounts of local meetings in blogs and very occasionally/rarely in a local paper, all without ever having seen any prior notice that the meeting was taking place.
Better use of the local media, be that print or online (social media, Twitter, etc) in highlighting upcoming events/meetings is crucial.
This isn't Field of Dreams, you can't call it and they will come. You have to call it, then tell the people. Only then will they come.
People are interested in local issues - they just need to be engaged and actively involved in the process.
Blogs like this can be the first step in that process.

Democritus said...

I think Kerry hits the crux of the problem.

How do you engage people who couldn't care?

As to why they coudn't care, one can talk about atomisation, thatcher's children, consultation fatigue and all, but the fact is they don't. The Police lay on these things - at a certain opportunity cost - they do publicise them via the BEP and a certain number of printed notices, email etc ... and to what purpose?

Aside from the secret police, kronstadt mutiny etc this was the essential problem with soviet systems. Ultimately most folk just ain't sufficiently interested to engege in a lengthy debate and decide on issues that are at best marginal to their lives. They prefer to elect politicians to make the decisions and kick them out if they feel they've done something wrong.

The ideal of an engaged citizentry is worth aiming at, but our present democracy is - as a previous Bristol MP made clear - representative for a reason.

James said...

I think publicity is a big issue with this kind of thing. I'm interested in participating, but I feel I often don't hear about things until they're too late.

As an example, I only heard about the A4 transport development consultation from this blog - as a result, I went along to the drop in shop and had a chance to engage with the process. If I hadn't read about it here, I wouldn't have known anything about it. Surely this is a failing on the Council's part to advertise?

Bearded Socialist said...

A very worthwhile attempt, shame it's met with such cynicism from some quarters.
There is no easy answer, but I think people are put off by the belief it will come to nothing, is just a talking shop etc.
Those are the ones who heard about it in the first place.
In order to tackle the apathy and cynicism, people need to be shown the results of these things.
And some people just won't care, no matter what you do.

I hope something positive comes of this though

donpaskini said...

Hi Kerry,

Some possible reasons why people didn't turn up:

-Choice of venue, how easy was it to get to? Would holding it at a school (and with the police!) have put some people off? Were people worried about getting home when it was dark afterwards?

-How was it publicised? How many people actually knew about it?

-What was done to make it sound interesting and worth going to (it looks pretty boring from the website) ?

-A meeting for an area covering 10,000 households is almost guaranteed a low turnout, it's better for local people (though less convenient for the organisers) to have more, local meetings covering fewer households.

I don't think it is evidence that people don't want to participate, more that people don't want to go along to a pointless evening meeting.

I was running some training for local community groups a couple of weeks ago, and we had a session run by a woman who set up a community group 8 years ago on the estate where she lives, which now employs 25 staff and 50 volunteers.

Her advice was that organising meetings were a pointless waste of time until work had been done to build up trust and credibility with people, and overcome their natural and quite correct scepticism about what the point of turning up would be.

Before she organised a single meeting, she'd knocked on every door on the estate and chatted to people about what they thought were the priorities for the area, so that when they did have a meeting, people could see the point of turning up - they knew the people organising it, they could see it would be worth their time to attend and it was focused on their local area.

Or, in other words, you would indeed have been better to spend the time canvassing :-)

anarchyintheuk said...

Many of the comments raised above discuss very relevant reasons for non-engagement.

I think there are at least two to add to the list.

These event become politicised before they even start. I know if a tory is organising the meeting, that will be the agenda, if labour, then it will be that way inclined, etc.

Politicians are asking people to set aside political difference to engage with politicians, but politicians wont set aside their own political agenda at these meetings.

To gain momentum, the meeting needs to strip out political affiliation, which leads to point 2.


Politicians are seen by many to be running on their own agenda and while paying lip service to the population, not actually listening to them, which has led people more towards, Direct Action, which circumvents elected ideological representation.

Direct Action draws people from distinct political divides to a common issue simply because they circumvent the political ideological agenda and focus on the issue at hand.

Direct Action is becoming the ever more preferred process of dealing with concerns, as vast swathes of the population become ever more disenfranchised from politicians.

Political meetings are set up on the basis that, 'we' are holding a meeting, you must come to us and also find out about it yourself. This is a failed model and until such time as politicians, police authorities, local authorities etc. regain a genuine connection with the public, by actually making the effort to connect, not running a 45 minute meeting advertised in some obscure magazine, in a dingy hall, around an ideological political thesis, they simply wont attract attendance.

It is far more effective to demonstrate outside the local police station raising concerns and forcing senior police officers to listen and turn up to meet people, rather than attending a talking shop organised by a bureaucrat,with a reluctant copper in attendance as it is their 'shift', at which the audience are invited to raise their hands, ask polite questions and nod at the answers. With no great expectation that anything will change or that anything will be fed back to the decision makers.

Pete Goodwin said...

Anarchyintheuk makes a good point: "Politicians are seen by many to be running on their own agenda and while paying lip service to the population..."
A case in point is the contemptuous attitude of the authorities (egged on by government) when it comes to fluoridating our water supplies. Dunno what you think of that, Kerry?
More comment on your concerns on my own blog here

The Watchman said...

You have hit the nail on the head, people/residents can not be bothered to attend meetings. Here in the NDC area (Redfield, St. George (part of) Barton Hill, The Dings the number of residents that attend the meetings where real desissions are made about how the £50m was spent attracted 3 or 4 people at the most. The reason was very simple, by year 3 (2003) it became apparant that the 'experts' and consultants knew what we needed, so why take notice of us, the residents ?
If you care to check up look at the first master plan, which I and several other residents condemded, and we had thrown out, the consultatns left in a huff - after first of all being paid, of course. We the few residents who give our time and spend our money to alter what the 'consultants' think we need, no recognition or costs re-imbursed. As we are not emplyed by the NDC.

I have been to several PACT meetings with the PCSO's and the Beat Sargent (JA) but like with the CCTV we are classed as partners, but get no feedback - nor acknowledgement of any sucess of information given. So what is the point, of going to these meetings any more, when I could better spend my time painting outthe 'Bog'?