Whichever government came to power after the election they were going to be faced with a tough financial climate and making cuts to public spending. The formation of Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition (or rather the Conservatives having their say about spending cuts in the coalition) means that some of these cuts will happen sooner rather than later. At the same time both the Conservatives’ and Liberals’ manifestos call for people to be more involved in decision making, especially at a local level, even if it is in the guise of citizen responsibility and the “Big Society”. All of this could have the following implications for public engagement in Great Britain.
- There will be an expectation on public service organisations to involve citizens in debates about how spending should be cut and services reconfigured (in fact people will demand it). For many there will also be a legal obligation to ensure this happens. More and more so, therefore, public engagement (and more formal consultation) will be about how better services can be provided with less money (the so called more for less debate). But dialogues about more for less are complicated and will require public engagement campaigns to be designed to be more fit-for-purpose than many currently are.
- Opinion polls are not very good at engaging people in discussions about cuts to services and how we do more for less. These issues are very complex and the kind of top-of-head or knee jerk response you are likely to get from an opinion poll will add little value. So organisations are going to need to adopt more participatory and deliberative approaches that focus on gathering informed opinion and insight. Consultation and engagement in this financial environment cannot and should not be about seeking popular support, but instead should focus on working with citizens to explore trade-offs and better ways of doing things with less money
- Formal consultations will need to be better executed. People will need to be presented with clear and well thought through options. This will require better pre-consultation engagement and organisations spending more effort on preparing their business case for consultation. This should allow for formal consultation to be executed more effectively and with less nasty surprises for all involved.
- There will be more pressure on public engagement to pay its way; to demonstrate that it can help us to save money and make better decisions. This will place more emphasis on organisations’ to demonstrate that their engagement work has a real and tangible impact. So the focus of feedback might need to shift away from a “You Said We Did” approach to one of “You Said We Saved!”
- Many of the changes needed to achieve the expected savings will require organisations to capture the hearts and minds of their employees, if they are to be implemented swiftly and effectively. So another consequence of the change in government will be a need for more effective employee consultation.
In summary, this all means that public engagement will be a core component of the change agenda (or the savings agenda). Done properly it will enable government departments and local agencies to take the public with them and involve them in the challenges ahead. Done poorly or not done at all, it will have the opposite effect and big changes will be very hard to implement, without the need for another election.