Saturday, 5 December 2009

Public influence outside political parties is not an illusion!

This is a response to a post by Andrea DiMaio headed ‘Why Citizen Participation May Be An Illusion’ on December 5th, 2009 at in which he argues that “It is all fair and good to say that politicians and government officials will carefully listen to what virtual communities say, but until when those communities can sit at a table and have a voting right, they won’t be able to make much difference”. He illustrates his point with reference to recent experiences in his original home town, near Milan, where a ‘city league’, i.e. a group of citizens not associated with any political party, decided to self-organize as an alternative to traditional politics, achieved a high profile and significant support, but didn’t have a single member elected as a councillor. Now they are considering forming as a more traditional political party, paradoxically in order to combat traditional party politics. He argues that this suggests that unorganized citizen involvement, e.g. through e-government and e-governance, will never have as much influence as organized involvement, which means getting ‘a vote at the table’.
Normally I enjoy the posts by Andrea DiMaio very much but this one had me shaking my head with dismay. I think he’s almost entirely missed the point here. Yes, many community groups and social movements will ‘go formal’ from time to time – they have that right. And, yes, many will become indistinguishable from the parties they originally formed to combat. (Of course, a few of them will go on to take over from those very parties – he has some good examples in Italy!). But this is NOT the way in which most citizens, even activists, have an influence.

We need to make a very clear distinction between ‘activists’ and ‘general citizens’. Most ‘general citizens’ are reluctant to spend much of their time making any positive contribution to civic debate or action, as Nick Jones points out very well in his comments above. However, they also resent being kept out of the debate, so they expect clear and visible invitations to participate, if only ‘arms-length’, on a reasonably frequent basis, though they will not generally take up those invitations. So it’s essential that they receive these invitations and feel included, if only at this very peripheral level. Occasionally, on issues which really switch them on, a proportion of general citizens (although usually only a quite small proportion) will become ‘activists’ for a while – not necessarily for long but it is likely that for a long time afterwards they will judge the responsiveness and the quality of the public sector by the experience they have in these periods of intense engagement.

Activists are different, of course – they know about and they care about the issues. But they often DON’T believe that they need a vote at the table. They do generally believe that they need a PLACE around the table. However, becoming formally enmeshed in ‘the system’ often seems to them to be counter-productive. We recently did a survey of a large number of high profile national and local activists in the UK on behalf of Communities and Local Government, our government department responsible for community empowerment. The majority had little involvement with MPs or local councillors, who of course DO have ‘a vote at the table’ but, as activists see it, almost no influence. Our activists had, however, huge involvement with the people they see as shaping the decisions made by public bodies – many of whom hold relatively low posts in public agencies and ministries, but write the reports which are rubber-stamped further up the decision-making chain. And our activists were VERY media-savvy. Almost NONE saw any circumstances in which they would be prepared to become MPs or local councillors, believing it would be of no value in furthering the causes and issues on which they were campaigning. (This is reminiscent of Tony Benn’s statement, when he announced that he would not stand as an MP again, that he was ‘leaving Parliament in order to be able to spend more time in politics’!) Yet these people generally have a very much higher profile than most national or local politicians and are believed by top decision makers to have an important influence on decisions which are made in government.

So, I would argue that the experience in Andrea DiMaio’s town in Italy is common but not a good guide to how the public can influence decision-making. In particular, we should recognize that both the public and activists can exert important influence on those with ‘a vote at the table’ and do not necessarily have to have a vote themselves. Moreover, those with ‘a vote at the table’ may have little real influence on the debate shaping decisions. Let’s not confuse having a vote with real influence over the debate, or authority with influence!

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