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30 October 2000

Tell us about your dog litter

Fuel protesters and pensioners accuse Tony Blair of not listening. In fact, this government is engag

By Judy Hirst

“So, how do people think we might tackle the noise pollution problem? Any ideas?” The bright-eyed facilitator, marker pen poised over flip chart, casts around rather anxiously, looking for a friendly face. But the dozen or so residents who have dragged themselves out on this windswept night are already thinking about tea and biscuits and the last bus home. The council’s listen-to-the-people exercise has not been a huge success.

Still, at least the men from the council have tried. And that is what counts in a climate in which each new Whitehall directive comes with a warning attached: consult your local community on this, or you don’t see a penny of the money.

The fuel protesters, the pensioners, virtually every interest group claims that the government is not listening. Yet this must be the most listening government ever. Ear to the ground, nose to the focus-group window, it is listening so hard it hurts – and not just, obsessively, to Philip Gould and every other marketing man and opinion pollster. Nor is it lending an ear only to its own, 5,000-strong People’s Panel, set up to test vox populi on everything from dog litter to devolution. It insists on all town-hall functionaries and elected members spending the best part of their week listening, too.

Citizens’ panels, citizens’ juries, visioning exercises, consensus conferences, e-democracy: your local council may be incapable of emptying the bins or paving the roads, but it really wants to know how you feel about it. In some authorities, there is incessant probing. In York, for example, everyone is consulted about something every single year. In Lewisham, south-east London, there is no escape even if you leave: the council conducts exit surveys to find out why. Brighton and Hove Council currently has more than 35 areas of strategic development out for community consultation.

There are signs that the community is getting a bit fed up with all this asking, that consultation fatigue is setting in. And then the same middle-aged, middle-class faces – focus groupies, as they are known in the trade – show up over and over again.

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This has been a real problem for the People’s Panel, according to Robert Worcester, the chairman of MORI, which set up the panel. Researchers have had to resort to a range of tactics (free drugs? New Deal amnesty?) to recruit such “hard-to-reach” groups as young people, working-class women, ethnic minorities – anyone other than the ABs.

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It seems a lot of effort for fairly modest returns. So why bother? The standard answer is the one new Labour pinched from Margaret Thatcher and John Major: that customer satisfaction surveys make good business sense. The point behind the charter initiatives, cone trees and consumer empowerment was to put pressure on public services to behave more like Tesco and Wal-Mart, to offer 24-hour, have-a-nice-day customer care.

But this government’s love affair with listening goes much deeper and further than that. It is on a moral mission to breathe new life into the comatose body politic; to promote many-not-the-few stakeholder democracy, particularly in local government, where abysmal election turnouts confirm the extent of voter apathy.

Like every other new Labour big idea, this one is an import from Stateside. In the land of personality-obsessed politics – and mass voter disaffection – an entire industry of scholars and charitable foundations is engaged in reinventing government. Deliberative democracy, a modern take on the old settler town meetings, is being heavily promoted, alongside citizens’ juries, commissions and panels. There is scant evidence that US citizens are much interested in these public participation forums, or that the views expressed there influence decision-making. But this has not deterred new Labour policy wonks from seizing on them to promote a home-grown version of democratic renewal.

“It’s all about rebuilding trust in the political process – something that has been totally lost – and recreating a habit of public involvement,” says Robin Clarke, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research.

But dipping a toe into the unknown waters of direct democracy is proving a riskier business than was first imagined. Most people may be reluctant to pitch up to a stage-managed consultation meeting, or to fill out a customer satisfaction questionnaire. But give them half a chance to have a say on something that really matters – or to register a protest with the government of the day – and the story can be quite different.

Blair found this out, to his cost, during the fiasco of London’s mayoral election. The government’s enthusiasm for extending the experiment nationwide has since cooled considerably. Next came the fuel blockaders, recreating the habit of public involvement – pickets and all – in a manner most unwelcome for the government.

At the local level, too, achieving a popular consensus on those difficult issues has proved elusive. Take Lewisham, where the council had hoped to persuade thousands of council tenants that transferring their homes to a housing company was in everyone’s best interests. Inconveniently, the residents voted the propo- sals down last year – largely, according to tenants’ organisers, because the council seriously overplayed its hand, bombarding residents with glossy brochures, videos and fun days. The whole issue has been referred to a high-level housing commission for further consultation.

Faced with the backlog of repairs, many authorities up and down the country are being advised to privatise what is left of their social housing. To do this, they need to win a simple majority in a tenants’ referendum. Despite all the resources on their side, many councils are failing to convince low-income residents that grandiose regeneration schemes will provide affordable housing. In Lambeth last month, 60 per cent of affected tenants voted down a £440m scheme; the turnout for the ballot was 73 per cent (no voter apathy there, then). And in Newcastle, residents of Scotswood are up in arms about regeneration plans that involve demolishing more than 6,000 homes.

Whatever the merits of such schemes, many tenants are giving them the thumbs-down. On past performance, they do not trust the council; nor are many people fooled by all the opportunities for participation magnanimously offered them. “The cream teas and the gift vouchers they give you are very nice,” said one elderly partici-pant in a Lewisham Listens initiative. “What I didn’t like was being kept there until they got the result they wanted.”

This, writ large, is the government’s problem. A growing number of voters appear to be feeling like the good citizens of York: they are endlessly consulted yet, as the latest residents’ survey shows, local people are significantly less satisfied with their council’s services. Last year, York City returned a council with no overall control after being ruled by Labour for 18 years. The council’s head of marketing feels the solution would be to provide more feedback: newsletters, e-mails, more evidence to consultees that the powers that be take their views seriously.

For his speech to the Labour Party conference in September, the Prime Minister clearly heeded the advice to “let the country know you hear it, you get the message, you will act”. The trouble is that everyone knows it is nonsense. Local authorities have admitted to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions that their participation initiatives have minimal impact on decision-making. And, according to MORI, few councils use citizens’ panels as methodologically intended – to track over time service-users’ views.

It is no different at national level. The pensioners have been consulted again and again (after all, they’ve got a lot of time on their hands) by royal commissions, by the People’s Panel, by something called Better Government for Older People. They have said that they want dignity, independence and, above all, financial security. The government has listened, but in the manner of a distracted parent who says “uh-huh”, then does the complete opposite.

Still, anyone for a cream tea?