As many are already aware the UK government is going to have a public consultation on their plans for spending cuts. Although this sounds like a great idea for engaging the public in tough decisions and is very “open government” there are lots of pitfalls that will need to be avoided if they are going to get this right. And especially if the whole exercise is going to be something more than a blatant PR exercise designed to soften or even spin the tough choices ahead. So to help with the debate we thought we’d provide some top tips on how to do this kind of consultation properly.
Top tips for running a public consultation on spending cuts
- Go for deliberative engagement. Dialogues about cuts in spending should not rely solely on opinion polls to capture people’s views and opinions. Such methods tend to capture uninformed “top of head” responses which are based more on hearsay and rational ignorance, rather than an in-depth understanding of the facts. Hence the quality of their contribution to the debate can be questioned. In addition opinion polls are more open to manipulation from lobby groups and the media so its questionable whose opinion is being captured. Instead the government needs to use more deliberative engagement methods. These methods can create safe places for dialogue which enable people to make more informed decisions, to participate in a more informed way and to make up their own mind (in their own way) about the best way forward
- Don’t sell it as a referendum. Remind everyone taking part that this is a consultation not a referendum about where cuts will and will not be made. The ultimate decision will rest with the government and not necessarily with the majority view.
- Be prepared to listen. There is a big reputation issue at stake here. Anyone running a high profile consultation on spending cuts needs to demonstrate that they are prepared to listen and that there is scope for people’s contribution to influence decisions
- Have a social media strategy. Twitter, facebook and the wider blogosphere are excellent platforms for engaging the public in this debate. But remember it is not just about having a social media presence (I.e. a facebook page and a twitter account) you also need a strategy to make sure you use them to maximum effect. This social media presence then needs to be managed and managed well.
- Listen to social media. A great deal of this debate will take place on social media sites and in the blogosphere outside of the control of “official” spaces for dialogue. The government will also need to just listen (and be proactive in doing so) to what people are saying about spending cuts online
- Target your audiences. Many communities of place and interest will not come forward and take help without help. The national debate will also need to pro-actively target different groups to make sure they too can take part. This will mean the debate needs to take place in different places, in different spaces and use different dialogue methods. On their own a series of public meetings will not include enough people from different walks of life
- Set boundaries. Have clearly defined boundaries for what people can and can’t influence. E.g. if you’re not going to cut the defence budget by 50% then be clear that this in not an option for consideratio
- Be time bound. Have a beginning and an end
- Be prepared to make changes. To avoid the consultation being a tick in the box PR exercise the government must be prepared to make changes based on the findings.
- Feedback. Make sure people know how the consultation has influenced the decisions.
There are probably more, but ten always sounds like a good idea. Are there more? Let us know.