#3: We need to strengthen trust and participation

Michael Harris /   June 8, 2012 at 8:31 PM 3,082 views


This is the third in a series of posts on ‘Ten reasons why we need a new approach to developing social policy’, originally published in 2012. The first post in the series can be found here and the second here. In the posts, we argue that social policy should be developed by and with the people who use and provide public and voluntary services. We’ll re-publish the whole series over the next week, and we welcome your comments.

We face a significant and growing public disillusionment and disengagement from mainstream politics. Scepticism and cynicism is rife about politicians, political parties, and as a consequence, about politics itself. However unfair, inaccurate and self-fulfilling this scepticism might be, it is a real phenomenon and an increasingly serious one. How do we resolve it?

Not by tweaking, a bit of reform here and there. What’s happening reflects a longer-term social and cultural change, flowing away from deference and attachment (to a community, to a class, to a party) and towards individualism, autonomy, and self-determination. It’s both good and bad, and depending on your political position, what you might consider to be largely good, someone else might consider to be largely bad – the changing nature of the family for example.

What unites us is that we’ve had enough of bullshit. We’ve reached the end of the ‘marketing age‘ in contemporary politics. That’s not to say that we won’t get fooled again, but we might be quicker to rumble it.

Clever political marketing also doesn’t sit very well with a grinding economic recession. Greater authenticity does. We don’t care where someone went to school – it’s what they do, their character and what they stand for that matters.

What’s next? The opposite of being marketed to is being part of something and helping to create it. It’s not that we don’t care about politics, it’s that traditional institutions and mechanisms don’t reflect the social and cultural change that’s happened. They don’t reflect our scepticism, but neither do they reflect something much more positive: our desire to be involved, to participate, and to exercise our self-determination collectively.

This is not a passive age, quite the opposite. There’s massive engagement in movements and platforms that show that they recognise this social change and provide ways for us to be part of something good. Look at Avaaz, Change.org, 38 Degrees,  Citizens UK (London Citizens), and campaigns such as Make Poverty History (returning in 2013). It’s not a coincidence that the President of the United States was a community organiser: he knows how to mobilise people, and many of us want to be mobilised.

Charities, political parties and companies are having to adjust to this reality; those that don’t give us meaningful ways to be involved will fade away. So the obvious question is, why not government as well? Why can’t we – as the providers and users of public and voluntary services – help to shape the policies that determine how these services are provided, how they are financed and held accountable?

Traditional consultations are the policy equivalent of being asking to sign a petition, when we want to be the petitioner. Open data, open services – these are good things, but the third dimension of open government is open decision-making. For us, that means developing new ways that public policymaking can be democratised, and in particular ways in which a greater diversity of the people who use and provide public services can more directly inform policy based on their own expertise and experience – something that’s largely missing from policy development at the moment.

It’s not about a better form of consultation, it’s about cooperative problem-solving. What this means is that the future of national policymaking, the way that we can resolve the crisis in trust and legitimacy facing us, lies in the ethos and practices of community organising – in developing platforms for real change that are non-partisan but passionate, hard-headed but optimistic, accessible but serious.

Anyone got any better ideas?

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