Post Date: September 23rd, 2013

I am involved in a lovely project at the moment, looking at the future of my local High Street. The local community association has commissioned me to conduct research  – a survey and focus groups building up to a community visioning day  – to find out what local residents of all backgrounds want their local environment to look like. Lovely because it’s where I live, so I obviously have a very tangible (if not entirely objective in research terms) stake in the outcome. Also because for the first time ever (in my experience of running several hundred policy related focus groups) no-one has once brought up the issue of immigration. So far anyway.

 But it’s also lovely because running the focus groups has reminded me of how much people relish being asked their views about policy issues, at any level. The participants at this week’s groups had a clear and immediate stake in the discussion, so perhaps it is not surprising that the debate was lively and well informed. But I’ve moderated equally passionate discussions about subjects such as pensions, aid policy and taxation.

 Our jury system correctly enshrines the idea that given the space, time and information members of the public arrive at perfectly sensible, and just, solutions.  Yet despite an increased focus on the need to talk to end users about service delivery, and drives to get the public actively involved in policy research (1) huge numbers of people have never been given the opportunity to think that they could possibly have anything to say on these topics.

 During a two day discussion about inheritance tax, which got into very technical detail about the potential for hypothecating the tax, one man spent the evening before the second day preparing ten pages of notes for himself – simply because he was enjoying the discussion and wanted to find out more.

 Similarly, numerous people have come up to me after research groups over the years and confessed that this was the first time they had ever been asked their opinion in this way, and said how much they had enjoyed it – even if they had only originally come to receive an ‘incentive’ (a small payment designed to cover costs of participants and to ensure a representative sample).

 This of course places a responsibility upon social researchers to point people in the direction of further information sources, and critically, to keep interested participants updated with what happens next, sending out the reports and so in. It’s also vital for researchers to be honest with the limitations of the research and place it into the context of wider policy making – people can feel quite crushed after the excitement of a group discussion when they realise that their input may have little (if any) impact on eventual policy. Explaining to a heartbroken young mother in Malawi with a baby dying of AIDS that my presence asking about her experience of medical supplies did not guarantee that the drugs her child so desperately needed would actually arrive was not easy.

 For many, many reasons too few people get a chance to find out that they enjoy discussing policy questions. Partly this is personal – all but the most committed feel the lure of the sofa on a cold Autumnal evening. And partly wider political and social processes impact – library closure, the increase in people struggling to literally feed their families, as well as the decline in party politics and all the well documented reasons for democratic fatigue. To some extent internet debate can fill this need, and I’ll write about that in another piece. Yet I suspect that there is something irreplaceable about being in a room with others over a sustained period of time, talking, questioning and having opinions challenged that leads to the kind of reactions I describe above.

 There are no easy answers, but some obvious missed opportunities. The party conferences could be an ideal way to get people talking – yet the season is sadly unlikely to increase the numbers of people surprised at their own ability to discuss complex policy issues. Astonishingly little is done to involve local people in any of the fringe events. Working at the conferences a few years ago, I was depressed to realise that virtually no party or group bothered to inform locals that most fringe events are open to all and free to attend (the ippr thinktank generally being an honourable exception (2)), and it seems that little has changed.

 It would be cheering to think that next year could be different. More social media letting residents know what is on and where, and some specific events aimed at locals could see more citizens entering – and enjoying – the debates usually reserved for policy makers and those around them. 

 

1 – for example, The National Institute for Health Research asks applications for research programmes to describe how the public will be involved (INVOLVE  (2012) Briefing Notes for Researchers: involving the public in NHS, public health and social care research)

2 ippr’s Condition of Britain project actively seeks members of the public to take part – http://www.ippr.org/events/54/11078/ippr-at-party-conferences-2013#labour

 

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