If politicians expect to get paid for participating in the democratic process, how can they possibly expect the rest of us to do it for free? Yet, that is precisely what modern governments seem to want of us – as citizens are required to play a greater part in what is supposedly a democratic process.
And I ask the question as I muse, yet again, on the subject of the Big Society. And it’s an important question if the aim of modern governance is not only to be far less hierarchical than it used to be but also to go beyond simply implementing the rather easier first two parts of what current models have managed to achieve to date:
According to Don Lenihan’s public engagement framework, Rethinking the Public Policy Process, citizens participate with government in three processes: consultation, deliberation, and public engagement.
The consultation process is when citizens are consulted and public opinion is collected in wikis, blogs, Facebook pages, public hearings, telephone interviews, or online surveys, to give some examples. Then, government makes a decision based on that information. Although sometimes productive, this process is not effective when we are considering highly contentious and/or complex issues.
The deliberation process is when citizens contribute to the discussion on how to proceed with what is discovered in consultation process. Participants address issues, negotiate, seek synergies and/or compromises, and arrive at strategies to proceed in light of differing opinions. Government then makes the final decision.
The public engagement process is when citizens contribute to (or even lead/facilitate) the consultation process, deliberation process, policy and legislation decisions, and/or actions to address the issue. The public and government are partners throughout the entire public engagement process.
But if the third is ever to happen, the very fact that one of the parties gets paid to get involved whilst the other has to do it out of the goodness of its socially-engaged heart is, surely, always going to distort the outcomes reached – as well as, inevitably, maintain the continuing self-interested professionalisation of what should be a democracy of equals.
If professional politicians only ever were facilitators of the democratic process. But it’s not going to happen whilst their livelihoods depend on such outcomes – and whilst we as voters and citizens have to use our leisure time to achieve such engagement. If modern systems of governance contemplate involving citizens to the degree some of the above suggests, then modern systems of governance should contemplate splitting the oversight of technical issues from the representative side of politics. In this brave new world, we won’t need our political representatives to be paid for their political activities: rather, we will expect them – as unpaid-citizen-facilitating politicos – to be in receipt only of financial state-provided resources and access to the intelligence they need to fulfil their obligations as bridges between technocratic duties and representative responsibilities.
Not paid to do a job but in receipt of resources to enable a process.
That is to say, they should engage and work with the rest of us, as equally unremunerated folk in the business of politics – on equal terms and with a coinciding objective: the truly democratic administration of society.
This, and only this, will allow anything approaching the Big Society to take off.
Anything else will be mere whitewash.