The final entry of a three part series, Edward provides a selection of some of the best ‘how to’ guides on engagement and consultation. How To Consult –Great Guides
In two preceding posts I’ve looked at the initial reactions to the Cabinet Office’s new Consultation principles as well as Involve’s take on the new guidance.
Since the new principles are very up front about not being ‘How to’ guidance (they outline the importance of listening to the public but do not tell you how to do it) I thought it would be best if I flag up my pick of the best practical resources for civil servants interested in engagement and consultation. Of course this list of good guides is only indicative; if you know of additional guidance on consultation and engagement please comment below.
A good place to start
I thought I’d start with our new Participation Compass website which was developed in collaboration with the Bertelsmann Foundation. The site contains descriptions of over 30 methods and cases of participation, and links to loads and loads of participatory resources. Participation Compass will contain all the best bits from People and Participation (Our previous and now out of use best practice site) with an interface for a new decade. Participation Compass will even have an App for those of you who need participation information on the go! You can find the original paper publication on which the site is based here: http://www.involve.org.uk/people-and-participation/
Principles for Consultation
Involve developed 9 principles of deliberation (PDF document) with the National Consumer Council a while back; it is a vital resource for understanding the difference between deliberative and other forms of consultation.
The Consultation Institute has developed its Consultation Charter which provides outline good practice principles. These are good resources, but still only provide outline ideas and support. For more detailed support you’ll need to look elsewhere.
Broadening your outlook
A common mistake people make in England is to neglect the great work done in the other parts of the UK. I’ve already mentioned these great Participation Principles from Participation Cymru in Wales.
Communities Scotland have also developed useful National Standards for Community Engagement.
Another useful Scottish resource is this recent toolkit from the Scottish Health Council with a good overview of methods.
For those with an interest in International good practice, the OECD have produced “Citizens as Partners” (PDF document) a Handbook on consultation and engagement.
In my view, Annette Zera has created one of the best practical introductions to creative ways to run meetings. “Getting on Brilliantly” used to be a resource you had to pay for but now it is available for free here and everyone who has to run or design meetings should read it.
Dialogue by Design has produced this “Dialogue Designer” which contains a lot of practical information along with guidance on selecting a good method for your consultation.
For those looking to expand their range of methods Involve’s Not another consultation! Document provides information on how to run events that combine the informality of community fun days with meaningful engagement methods.
For those interested in consulting online there are a number of guides.
One of the best recent ones is The Digital Engagement Guide, developed by Helpful Technology.
New Zealand also has a wealth of experience in online engagement, some of which can be accessed in this guide.
And here is an older, but beautifully designed guide: eDemocracy in Bristol Guide (PDF document).
Guides to Evaluating consultation
RCUK have prepared guidance on how to evaluate public engagement: http://www.rcuk.ac.uk/media/news/2005news/Pages/050323.aspx
Involve also prepared guidelines with Diane Warburton: Making a Difference
Other useful guides
For those civil servants wrestling with the difficult choice of whether or not to pay people to participate, this resource looks at the issue of paying participants.
I’d also like to flag up an American resource (PDF document) which is useful for deliberative approaches.
The National Empowerment Partnership microsite contains numerous briefing papers on engaging with older people, minorities and rural populations.
The former Improvement and Development Agency developed a number of useful guides over the years, including “The ideal empowering authority: an illustrated framework (PDF document)” and “Community Engagement and Empowerment: A Guide for Councillors.” (PDF document)
For those with an interest in Planning the RTPI “Guidelines on Effective Community Involvement and Consultation Good Practice” (PDF document) may be of interest.
The Sciencewise programme has published A “Departmental Dialogue Index” (PDF document) which allows Central Government teams to assess themselves and their Departments to see how they could improve their engagement and consultation.
And finally saving one of the best ones for last Participedia provides a range of in depth information on methods and case studies. The team is led by Academics from Harvard and the quality of information on the site is very high.
The web is awash with good guides to consultation and engagement. Despite this, much consultation misses the mark today. Citizens I speak to about consultation are generally cynical about the very activities that Government undertakes to reduce apathy and disengagement. Clearly the new Consultation principles are important; but they can only be a small part of the solution. We need to increase knowledge and skills, both amongst civil servants, but also amongst stakeholders and citizens.
I’ve shared some of the tools I’ve found valuable through the years. Now I’d be interested to hear which tools you can’t do without? Comment below!
In the second of a three part series about the new Government Consultation Principles, Edward Andersson writes about Involve’s reaction to these new principles. In my previous post I looked at initial reactions to the Cabinet Office’s new Consultation Principles. In this post I will provide some Involve commentary.
Like many other guidance rewrites under the current government the new Consultation Principles are much shorter than the document they replace (See for example the debate around the Best Value Guidance and Duty to Involve). The Consultation Principles are three pages long; they replace a code of conduct (PDF document) which ran to thirteen pages. So on the count of saving on paper and printing costs the new Principles are an improvement. What of the content –what have they had to cut out in order to shorten the document?
The principles contain important guidance that Involve and many others have called for over the years; including a focus on real engagement and not tokenism, an acknowledgement that consultation is not always appropriate and an expectation that consultation will be done early and in a proportionate manner. This marks a move away from a more rigid ‘one size fits all’ approach –an approach which has led to a spree of court cases in recent years.
One of the most controversial changes is that the new principles do away with the ’12 week rule’ which previously stated that “Consultations should normally last for at least 12 weeks with consideration given to longer timescales where feasible and sensible”. The new statement says timeframes should be “proportionate and realistic” and might “typically vary between two and 12 weeks”.
The problem with the old definition was that Civil Servants became hung up on the 12 weeks as an absolute law. The new version does away with some of the rigidity but insidiously 12 weeks has ceased to be a minimum and will now be perceived by many to be a maximum. It is true that there are many cases where a shorter consultation process is possible –but for 2 weeks to be a meaningful consultation period there has to have been substantial engagement in advance and the stakeholders need heads up as to when to expect the consultation.
Worryingly I think many civil servants will not read it this way. A strong argument for the 12 week minimum rule previously was that membership groups need time to consult with their local branches and members before submitting a formal response. A shorter period is likely to lead to more rushed and less considered responses.
I like where the principles place their emphasis: tailoring the consultation to the relevant participants and issues, providing easy to understand information, making sure that departments make clear how previous feedback taken into consideration, the importance of clear objectives and cross- departmental collaboration.
I can see where the principles have come from –consultation is often done as a tick box exercise, following a formalistic process, for unclear reasons and with little feedback. The two and a half year Pathways through Participation research project interviewed over 100 citizens and we did not find one of them who had a positive experience of formal consultation. Clearly there are massive problems with consultation today, not least that it leaves citizens cynical, angry and disempowered. The new principles may play a role in responding to this.
However in cutting ten pages from the guidance the new Principles have missed off some important things that were covered in the Old Code of Conduct. A key thing that is missing is definitions of consultation, engagement and other terms.
The document is very up front about not being a ‘how to’ guide. The brevity does mean that it does little to define terms. The statement “Consultation is part of wider engagement” is true but without explanation and backing information the advice may go unheeded.
The New Consultation Principles also do not mention the importance of deliberative dialogue when engaging on complicated issues. Given the good work done by Sciencewise and other parts of Government with these types of methods it seems a shame that civil servants looking for advice on how to consult aren’t signposted.
On a very fundamental level a key problem with the principles is that they solely focus on consultation and fail to encourage or support civil servants who want to engage citizens in decisions at an earlier stage or where civil servants might wish to devolve power to citizens directly.
The Consultation principles are not very inspiring and there is a risk they will encourage more of the same from government.
There are two areas where the Code of Conduct on Consultation provided structure which the new Principles do not mention. The Code required each consultation to provide a standard table of basic information so that citizens and stakeholders could quickly see if the consultation was relevant to them. Under the Code each department also had to appoint a Consultation Coordinator who would provide advice on how to consult as well as coordinating the consultation across the departments. I’d be interested to hear from Civil servants and those who responded to many consultations –have you found the Consultation Coordinators and standard table of basic information useful? Will you miss them or are they just another bureaucratic add on?
Since the new principles for all their virtues do not tell civil servant HOW to engage and consult I thought that I’d list some of the best ‘how to’ guides out there next week. If you have suggestions for guide guidance on consultation and engagement please comment below.
In this economic climate, the value of public engagement needs to be articulated in economic terms. Involve’s toolkit demonstrates that you don’t need specialist skills or knowledge to make the business case for engagement.
Today Involve and Consumer Focus launch our long awaited toolkit for how to make the case for engagement using monetary terms. We’ve had over a hundred people email and ask us for copies before the launch and so we hope that it will be well received. Thank you all for waiting so patiently!
Involve started thinking about the costs and benefits of engagement way back in 2005 (Here’s the original report). Back then there was limited interest; people felt there was little need to justify engagement and participation on economic grounds. Things are very different now. The public sector faces massive cuts across the board. Engagement and consultation are certainly not immune . I know of many posts that have been cut, projects scrapped and organisations that have lost their funding in the field. Making the case for engagement in this environment is difficult. In the past non-monetary benefits were the main arguments for this way of working. Community development workers, youth workers and consultation officers would point out that engagement was good for democracy, good for the self-esteem of the participants and good for social cohesion. Using monetary savings or efficiencies as an argument for a more democratic approach felt wrong. Clearly things have changed. When people are looking high and low for places to cut we cannot shy away from the economic arguments for participation.
The guidebook we launch today is a practical tool for you to make the case for engagement and determine how to measure the value of a project. The document consists of the main report and two excel sheets. One sheet tracks the costs and benefits of a single project and one compares the costs and benefits of two projects with each other.
The toolkit cannot and should not be used to create a false justifcation for projects that do not wokr. What the toolkit allows you to do is to articulate the benefits that you have seen but have lacked the language to speak about in the past.
I’ve had some emails from people who have welcomed the toolkit but worried that it would be difficult and not the toolkit for them. They assume they need specialised education, skills and skills to make this work. I believe that they are wrong and here are my five top tips for how to make the most of the toolkit:
Many people working in consultation have noted that those who are happy with a proposal are much less likely to make a submission than those who are negatively impacted. It is far easier to get a petition going opposing a development than it is supporting one and most referendums end up supporting the status quo for similar reasons. So if consultations don’t give a complete indication of how the community feels about the issue, they are disempowering the silent majority.
I vividly remember an example where a Councillor faced vocal opposition from constituents to a new super market development and as a result voted against it. At the time it seemed only a handful of residents were for it. However at election time when the Councillor went round door knocking, a considerable number of people were wondering what happened to the super market. Those who actually supported the development were not noticed because they lived further from the development, were less educated and poorer than the vocal opponents, and as a result they were not heard in the traditional consultation.
Given this ‘response bias’ in consultation someone recently suggested to me that consultation submissions could be weighted in some way to account for the over representation of negative views. I think there are many reasons why this is a dangerous route to take.
In my experience consultations are rarely just about the numbers of responses received. Consultations are about exploring ideas, concerns and unintended consequences of a proposed policy – it is not a vote. Indeed, one of the most important roles of the organiser is to make it clear that consultations are not referendums. Consultations can gather better information about what local people think as well as increase understanding of the likely impacts of the policy. In the latter case a single response providing a vital and overlooked piece of information may carry more weight than thousands of identical template responses.
Weighting can fill a vital role in quantitative consultation in order to balance different demographics response rates, to compensate for lacking recruitment – for example if fewer women than men respond (but only if there is a large enough sample size to begin with). Weighting works for quantitative engagement but not for qualitative responses. However if it is done, it must be done transparently and in a considered way.
Weighting is also useful where the impact of a policy on certain groups is more important than views from the overall population. For example, when consulting on young people’s services it may make sense to weight the responses from young people higher than those from adults. The responses from adults should not be dismissed outright however, as it is possible that some youth activities will have negative or positive impacts on the rest of the population.
While there is some guidance on analysing the answers to consultations it is hard to give clear rules in advance on how to deal with the complexities of consultations. Analysing consultations is an art and not a science. Each contribution has to be assessed based on:
Is weighting the responses the way to deal with this?
Weighting responses that are negative towards a government proposal would (rightly) be seen as undemocratic, unfair and as a manipulative way to skew the debate.
So what should we do?
The Councillor I mentioned earlier found that ward walks helped him to reach out to the silent majority who would not respond on their own. If you suspect that there is a large silent majority try to get their responses through methods such as door knocking, peer interviews, informal engagement or demographically sampled surveys, methods which get views from of the silent voices. Involve have produced a few useful guides to informal engagement that you might find useful in doing so: Not another Consultation and Say & Play.
The problem is that we have an imbalance in the supply of consultation responses. Rather than devaluing some responses to account for the imbalance, the solution is to gather balancing views. The job of the consultation professional is to ensure a level playing field and to seek out the quiet ‘easy to overlook’ voices. In short, amplify the quiet voices rather than trying to muffle the loud ones!
I have been spending a lot of time in Turkey lately, working on projects with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the UNDP. The projects have looked at how citizens can be better involved in local and national decisions. I find that travelling is always an illuminating experience; what at first seems very foreign and different to the UK often ends up shedding new light on work I’m doing back home. So it has been in Turkey, where, despite differences, the future challenges of local democracy aren’t that different after all. Turkey is, much like England, heavily centralised with little room for local decision making.
An interesting case in point is the role of the Muhtar (village headman), an elected post (the closest British equivalent would be parish councillors). Much like parish councillors they are an example both of what is best and worst with democracy at the local level.
On the one hand they are very local and non party political, just like the parish councillors. Despite limited power Muhtars often command a reasonable level of trust in their communities. They are certainly more connected to local residents than the municipal councillors and in part this springs from the fact that the Muhtar role is non-partisan and relatively informal. Any proposals to formalise it or increase their power may undermine these qualities.
On the other hand Muhtars have frustratingly little real power and their role is becoming increasingly irrelevant as some of the tasks they used to perform (administrative duties and census, for example) are now being done remotely via e-government applications. In the worst cases, the post of Muhtar is almost hereditary (with son replacing father), appointed through uncontested elections (with abysmal turnout) and office holder primarily motivated by local prestige. All of these are also criticisms at various points levelled at Parish councillors.
A strange incentive to become a Muhtar is the customary right to carry a gun. In that regard they are quite different from Parish councillors! This is one example of where something which at first sight seemed completely irrelevant to the British case actually turned out to be quite illuminating. The fact that the right to bear arms in some parts of Turkey acts as an incentive to make people stand for office brought home to me the difficulty of dealing with motivations for participation. I was thinking how problematic it is from a British perspective to have armed local representatives and how the prospect of gun ownership might attract the wrong kind of applicant.
Last week I gave a presentation (Together with Richard Wilson from IzWe) for the Home Office and Baroness Newlove, the Government’s Champion for Active, Safer Communities and ended up spending a lot of time talking about what the excellent reports from Pathways through Participation have to say about motivations for participation. I made the point that we need to make sure that the participation gives incentives that tie in to the motivations of citizens and I was challenged by a community activist. She asked why incentives should be necessary at all. Shouldn’t the positive impact on the community be enough on its own? After all that’s why she was involved. There were a lot of nods around the room and many people seemed to be worried that introducing incentives of any kind would lead to the wrong kind of engagement. We often assume that there are good and bad reasons for participating (the good reasons obviously being the ones that compelled us and the bad those that drive our neighbours).
A lot of people find the idea of people participating motivated by personal incentives troubling. In an ideal world everyone would be motivated by doing good for the community rather than personal aggrandisement.
However, I think that assuming that everyone is motivated by the same things is a dangerous path to take. The Campaign Company has done some interesting work looking at what motivates different parts of the population. Clearly for some people (usually those already involved) good deeds are their own reward and they tend to look down on their neighbour who are looking for benefits that accrue to them personally, or indeed those neighbours primarily motivated by negative emotions and fears. Simply discounting these people and their motivations may be good for the sense of moral superiority of the existing activists, but is unlikely to encourage a broader range of people to take part.
Clearly some motivations will always be inappropriate (corruption, racial hatred, etc.), but maybe it is time for all us habitual activists to take a good look at ourselves in the mirror. If we sneer at people who show up for the free food, fancy title or cash incentive; what does that say about us? Because the fact is that people often join in for these reasons, but they end up staying on as activists for very different reasons, the social interactions, the friendships and the sense of local ownership that develops. The trick is to get them in the door in the first place for these social reasons to start playing a role.
So maybe I’m wrong to take exception to people choosing to become Muhtars in Turkey because it comes with status and the right to carry a pistol. Should we worry too much about the initial motive if they end up doing good work and representing their community? It is easy to laugh at the ‘big fish in the small pond’, but maybe we need to abandon our snobbishness and ‘big up’ the offer in order to appeal to some people’s sense of vanity? Should we accept that for some people the gold chain, sitting on prestigious boards, titles (for example being a ‘champion’ or ‘warden’ rather than a ‘volunteer’) and uniforms and tabards and other visual signs of status are very important?
Handing out guns to parish councillors might increase interest in the role, but it is perhaps a step too far. However, the shiny sheriff’s badge might have the same effect. After all, community rehabilitation means making the people who have done something wrong visible to the community, so shouldn’t we be making those who have done something right visible as well?
Across the world political parties are struggling, with declining membership and lower levels of public trust. The fortunes of established parties are also becoming more volatile.
In 2010 we saw chaotic scenes from the Israeli, Ukrainian, Italian and Belgian Parliaments. In Sweden the once dominant Social Democrats lost their second election in a row in 2010. From a UK perspective that might not seem like a big deal. However, bear in mind that the Swedish Social Democrats have been in power for all but 14 of the past 93 years and that this is the first time since the 1920s that they have lost two elections in a row; you can see that this represents a significant shift.
Formally dominant parties cannot take their support for granted anymore. The decline in party membership over the past decades has been almost universal across the world. A recent Economist article outlined some of the struggles that parties face.
There are of course still fluctuations in the fortunes of parties but there are few cases of parties achieving sustained massive growth anymore. It doesn't matter if we consider the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Democrats or Republicans. All established parties have seen their membership base shrink.
According to recent research by Parliament the Conservative Party had almost 3 m members and Labour around a million in 1951. The 2008 estimate was Conservatives 250,000 and Labour 166,000. This decline has not been compensated for by a growth in the smaller parties.
In part the decline of party membership is down to changing socio-demographics and is inevitable. When my father was a teenager he joined a local youth party branch not out of conviction but because they organised the only youth dances in the countryside. Nowadays young people are spoilt for choice with multiple one issue movements, and are not reliant on political parties for parties!
For the last 100 years or more organised mass parties have been the backbone of politics in most democratic nations; this period seems to be drawing to a close. What impacts will the decline in party membership have on democracy?
I've identified three impacts:
The first and most of this is obvious impact is increased political volatility. Large and stable party machines have provided consistency, discipline and predictability in politics. Of course they also have negative impacts, for example predictability may also seem like a stitch up; a cynical non-voter in last years election explained to me that ‘Whoever I vote for, parliament always gets in'. Volatile party membership may lead to more frequent changes in government.
The second impact is the rise of new parties, often with populist agendas; in Sweden between 1940 and 1988 no new parties were voted in. Between 1988 and 2010 four new parties have been voted into parliament. This volatility also means that these new parties increasingly are charismatic one person shows. For example we had seen Shinui in Israel, the Pim Fortuyn List in the Netherlands and the series of parties centred around Berlusconi in Italy come and go. This development loosens the power of party whips but also creates quickly shifting fortunes. One man (or occasionally woman) bands are not stable. After the initial enthusiasm dies down a succession of populist flashes in the pan is likely to further disenchant voters.
A third impact of the decline in party membership is that it leaves established Parties open to internal take over. If active party membership at the local level is limited to a dozen or so active members the branch becomes very easy to take over by a committed group of activists or indeed by wealthy funders able to bankroll a campaign. An examples is the sudden success of the Tea Party in shifting the focus of the Republican Party; in some cases taking over local branches of the Republican party in the process.
All of this is leading towards a more unpredictable form of politics. The decline in party membership may or may not be reversible (I wouldn't hold my breath) but we will need to mitigate or live with it. What are the options available to society to deal with these impacts?
One option is to go with politics as usual, blindly ignore the problem and pretend parties still represent mass movements. The results are likely to be the growth of executive power to combat volatility, leaving parliaments increasingly distant and mistrusted. In my view the strengthening of the executive at the expense of parliament has already gone far enough in the UK.
Another option is to look to independent candidates as the solution. If the people no longer want parties why insist? After all didn't we have a function parliament before parties in the modern sense existed? However a system of individual independent MPS which worked in the 1700s and 1800s would be hard to pull off today. While we are likely to see a rise in number of independents, these individual MPs will need to find ways of overcoming disagreements and finding workable solutions. If parties aren't there to facilitate this we will need a substitute.
A third option to deal with volatility is to boost bureaucracy -we have already seen key decision taken from elected politicians and given to quangos and expert panels. This has been criticised as disempowering elected politicians and we are currently seeing the "Bonfire of the Quangos". The question is will it last? After all the Conservatives set up many of the quangos they now profess to detest (including the much maligned Audit Commission). I think we're likely to continue to see some decisions taken out of the hands of politicians and given to experts.
Another solution which some people propose is more direct democracy -handing power directly to people through referendums and initiatives. This will take power away from elected politicians and the Swiss example suggests direct democracy further weakens parties. direct democracy has its place but it is not always a good thing. The difficulty of getting unpopular, but long term beneficial developments, such as congestion charging, through referendums show that direct democracy is probably a complement to representative party politics than a replacement.
Personally I feel that while the above provide some answers a more workable option would be for parties to give up their monopolistic aspirations in favour of a more networked model. The old all encompassing party allegiance feels out of touch; opening up the possibility of more fluid allegiances where the elected member plays a leadership role in the community and the role of the party becomes more about harnessing and interpreting local needs in society. Forward thinking politicians are already doing this of course; developing the skills needed to reconnect to citizens by providing community leadership. Parties can be more relevant connected into a mass network as opposed to trying to be a mass movement on their own.
On Friday, Involve hosts the Local Society Seminar together with Urban Forum and 21st Century Councillor. This event will look at some critical questions around local government, including the strategic role of local government, accountability and risk and the role for councillors in strong and active communities. The discussion papers are well worth a look.
This event won't come up with a simple solution to the global decline in party membership but it is exactly these kinds of conversations we need to have if we are to understand what it means and how to live with it.
Involve and Local Government Improvement and Development have recently published ‘Not another Consultation' -a new guide on informal engagement in the health sector. It outlines practical ways of engaging with local people in ways which are fun and creative.
We worry a lot about the 'usual suspects'; I'd argue we should worry more about the 'usual methods' which we use out of reflex. Public meetings, online consultation documents and other 'traditional' methods are useful -in some contexts and for some people. What the document proposes is to broaden the range of tools we use to include approaches which feel more like games than social research.
I think there are three strong reasons for making engagement more fun:
1. Firstly, it'll help you broaden your participant profile, reaching people who will never come along if the process seems dry and dull. 2. Secondly, people will enjoy the sessions more, so they're more likely to come back, recommend it to friends and they'll contribute more creatively. As a result you may get more from the meetings. 3. Finally, these types of events tend to be more enjoyable for the organiser as well.
So if there are so many compelling reasons why don't more public bodies embrace a more creative and fun approach to consultation and engagement? I think the answer partly lies in organisational culture. 'Fun' feels like a very foreign concept in a professional world and so the idea that colourful crayons, funny shaped Post Its and glitter sticks might be legitimate consultation expenses might be met with some resistance.
What I have found is that you can get people who self-identify as 'serious' and 'professional' to do things that are creative and enjoyable but you need to frame it in the right way. Approaches such as World Cafe (where you draw on the table cloths) and Open Space (where there is no agenda) tend to be resisted by many professionals and doubly so if we use the ‘fluffy' language which tends to surround these methods. Try selling the ideas of 'hospitable space', 'Native American talking objects' and 'whenever it starts is the right time' (to name a few examples) to sceptical bureaucrats!
Instead I've had better results where I've focussed on emphasising that these methods have been used repeatedly by big companies (IBM, Shell, Toyota), by big institutions (World Economic Forum, NHS trusts etc) and on the research which shows that more creative approaches are good at enhancing creative solutions.
Of course ‘fun' isn't risk free; one of the biggest risks is of seeming insensitive or flippant towards your participants. I've seen cases where project staff were very excited about new voting pads and wanted to do a quiz about what people liked about the neighbourhood. Normally that would be a good idea. The problem was the local people were more interested in talking about cuts and their disappointment towards the council and so the quiz came across as a diversionary exercise. It is far easier to do something 'fun' around an upbeat topic than it is about something contentious (such as cuts). In these latter cases we might need to settle for 'respectful' consultation.
There will be scepticism towards informal engagement; this is after all a new way of working. We need to keep chipping away at the attitude that engagement must be worthy and consultation must be like pulling teeth or else it lack rigour and is not good evidence. Our participants deserve better than this and so do we.
Last week Involve and Sciencewise held a joint workshop on how to measure the costs and benefits of engagement. We brought together around 30 people from a diverse range of organisations with interest in the issue for an afternoon's discussion.
One of the most interesting discussions of the afternoon was on why different people want to measure the costs and benefits of engagement. Some people at the event were focussed on building a business case for engagement in order to convince sceptical managers and budget holders while others were interested carrying out objective research into what works and building hard evidence into cost-effectiveness. In short, is this research or promotion?
This is a vital question; there is a real danger of confusion and mistrust if the two get mixed up; in the end I think we need both.
On one hand I think we need hard nosed evaluation of engagement. We need to know what works and what doesn't, especially in a time of unprecedented pressure on the public sector. To except engagement from cuts as a matter of principle is unrealistic. There is a lot of wasteful engagement going on that doesn't meet the needs of the funders or citizens; if we can find the evidence needed to convince people to stop doing this - then great! However rigorous evaluation won't be enough on its own.
Full-blown economic evaluation is expensive and time consuming (not to mention skills intensive). A lot of practitioners are delivering worthwhile engagement projects but have only anecdotal evidence to support this. They are unlikely to get resources to do a full academic evaluation. Instead, as the spending review bites, their budgets are likely to be slashed unless they have access to simple tools that help them articulate the costs and benefits of their work to their managers and budget holders. A lot of good work risks getting cut in a false economy, simply because people are unable to explain the benefits in language that managers can relate to.
Maybe we need a two tier system for measuring the costs and benefits of engagement: on the one hand high end, academic controlled studies and trials to build a water tight evidence base, probably limited to a small number of selected significant programmes. On the other hand there will also be a need for very practical tools for practitioners and advocates to build the business case for engagement.
There were many additional key points raised at the workshop and for those who couldn't make it there is an event report due out soon with a summary of the discussion points.
Involve is also developing a practical framework on measuring costs and benefits with Consumer Focus. The report has not yet been officially launched. Get in touch if you want a copy of either document: Edward@involve.org.uk
If you can't wait here are some other resources on measuring costs and benefits:
Involve's 2005 report on costs and benefits of engagement
Making a difference -Involve/Shared Practice Evaluation framework which include aspects of costs and benefits.
Local Government Improvement and Development -Business case tool for community empowerment
CDF -Art of Influence: How to make the case for community development
Last week I was lucky enough to attend the Council of Europe's Forum on the Future of Democracy, held in Yerevan, Armenia where I spoke on a panel on the topic of "Sustainable communities for a living democracy". The panel had a great line up of speakers from Access Info Europe, the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe (IRI Europe) and the Armenian Congress of Local and Regional Authorities amongst others.
Julian Popov, the Chair of the Bulgarian School of Political Studies, wrote an excellent discussion paper on the challenges that climate change poses to democracy to kick-start our discussion. What I took from the discussion was that there are several ways in which climate change might undermine democracy.
Firstly some ecologically minded thinkers have started to doubt democracy's ability to deal with issues such as climate change. The urgency of the issue and the seeming inaction from democratically elected politicians (most recently evidenced in Copenhagen) has led James Lovelock to declare that climate change will make it "necessary to put democracy on hold for a while" and Thomas L. Freidman to state that "One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But ... can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century". The threat is that this view may spread more widely and lead to a search for a more autocratic green solution.
The second challenge is linked to democracy's limited ability to deal with sudden catastrophic events; most recently we have seen how the floods in Pakistan floods and fires in Russia have placed both societies under intense pressure. Sudden external events undermine democracy; a form of government which requires time to reflect and consult to be effective. Reagan wrote "We had many contingency plans for responding to a nuclear attack. But everything would happen so fast that I wondered how much planning or reason could be applied in such a crisis... Six minutes to decide how to respond to a blip on a radar scope and decide whether to unleash Armageddon! How could anyone apply reason at a time like that?". How can you be inclusive, participative and deliberative when time is in short supply? Often the answer is you don't.
In the case of Pakistan the floods have left many elected politicians discredited whilst the army and the Islamists have seen their credibility rise. Of course one off events, no matter how crippling can be managed by democracies; the challenge comes if they are frequent or interact. Popov cites some reports saying that "if Pakistan has one flood like this every 20 years it would never be able to move above its current economic level." It is interesting to think how resilient British democracy would be in the face of such challenges.
I'm beginning to ask myself if there isn't a tipping point for democracy as well as the climate? A point of no return from which the political structures are unable to recover. Maybe we need global institutions to pay as much attention to mitigating against autocracy as they do to mitigating against disease?
A third way in which climate change may be undermining democracy has to do with energy technology. Many development professionals have remarked on the so called ‘resource curse'. The more natural resource income a country has the less local accountable and democratic the political structures tend to be. In short the more oil the less democracy. This is partly because government is less dependent on citizen consent for income and partly because highly centralised fossil fuel energy systems are easy for governments to control and manipulate. Chad is an example where over the past decade oil income has allowed the government to increase military spending from $14 million to $315 million; with negative impacts on democratisation and human rights.
If fossil fuel technology itself is conducive to corruption can the opposite be true for be true for renewable energy? This technology tends to be cheaper, more dispersed and harder for central power to monopolise. Might a shift from carbon to renewable fuels also have a positive impact by democratising the economy and society?
As Involve have written in our recent Talking for a Change pamphlet Climate Change is a very difficult topic for governments to deal with. We argue that while there are many problems, a key one is that government can't do it all alone. Given the wide ranging changes necessary for mitigation government will need people's consent, and more importantly given the wide ranging causes of CO2 emissions governments will also need people's collaboration.
So does climate change mean the end of democracy as we know it? I remain optimistic that democracy can deal with the multiple challenges. Positive examples from across the world show that democracies can facilitate people taking action themselves. Diverse examples such as Pledge bank, Cofacio and Orange Rockcorps are all examples where people are encouraged to take positive action starting from the bottom up and building on people's everyday motivations; something our recent research as found is very important. Viral examples such as these show that perhaps another type of tipping point is possible...
This blog is a repository for posts I have made over the years at Involve as well as more personal reflections.