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.
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