6 Ways Public Consultation Promotes Public Trust
Though new information and communications technology (ICTs) and a number of online consultation tools have facilitated unprecedented access between citizens, governments and key decision-makers, public trust in government remains at near-historic lows. Low voter turnout rates and rising dissatisfaction with the democratic process have become all too common, reflecting an overall decline in public trust. From Occupy Wall Street to the rise of the Tea Party, a dearth in public trust has led citizens of all political stripes to mobilize against prevailing institutions in attempts to reclaim their agency.
While there are many factors contributing to declining public trust, there is a growing perception that governments are unwilling to listen and respond to public concerns. A 2003 Pew Research study on trust and participation indicated that only 39% of Americans believed that elected officials and government cared about the opinions of citizens. Ten years later, a study by Gilens and Page (2013) found that the overwhelming influence of economic elites, interest groups, and lobby groups means that the average citizen has essentially no impact on public policy decisions.
So, how do we fix it?
These are clearly symptoms of an unhealthy, failing democracy. The need for governments to engage and consult with citizens in good faith is more crucial than ever. Governments need to see citizens as collaborators and partners in the decision-making process, rather than adversaries. When governments engage in legitimate, verifiable and authenticated public consultation, public trust is enhanced.
1. Increase ownership from citizens
When citizens are included in the decision-making process, they are more likely to trust the process and take ownership of policies and decisions that are being created in collaboration with them, instead of being imposed on them.
Examples include participation in neighbourhood councils, participatory budgeting, and more. Most recently, in Portugal, one town managed to engage 25% of its population in participatory budgeting, and citizens were able to organize around priorities that mattered to them. Due to the open nature of the exercise, there were no nasty surprises from the final budget and citizens took ownership of this shared document that they created.
2. Work towards gaining social licence
Social licence is defined as a local community’s acceptance or approval of a company’s project or ongoing presence in an area. The lack of social licence can mean the difference between a project moving forward or being stalled indefinitely, bringing both social and economic consequences for both the proponent and the community.
The traditional method of “decide, announce, defend” in such cases will only anger residents and reinforce the idea that governments are unwilling to listen to public concerns. Including residents in an open and transparent process to build consensus enhances trust between both parties, and is more likely to result in social licence for projects which may have difficulty going ahead.
3. Be open, transparent, and upfront with citizens
As access to information has increased, citizens are demanding more transparency from their governments. In projects which lack social licence, it is even more important than ever for decision-makers to be upfront about who they have consulted with, and how that final decision was reached. Failure to do so can irreparably destroy trust between the government and the community.
In contrast to the culture of secrecy that breeds mistrust and cynicism, public consultations conducted on PlaceSpeak are fully transparent and open. Citizens can be confident that the people who are being consulted are real, live residents living within specific geographical boundaries just like them, instead of people trying to influence the decision from interest groups or lobby groups.
4. Demonstrate government responsiveness
In a world of Uber and other on-demand services, people have come to expect the same level of service from their governments. Governments need to be able to keep up and demonstrate responsiveness to the concerns of residents. Apps such as SeeClickFix allow residents to report non-emergency issues, and the appropriate government department can respond directly and publicly, stating whether the issue has been dealt with.
The decision-making process itself needs to incorporate these characteristics of responsiveness, transparency, and accountability. Merely informing residents of proposed policy changes is not enough. Trust is built upon an ongoing two-way conversation which takes into account concerns and feedback from residents. Incorporating the feedback loop — showing citizens how and where their input has made an impact — is key.
5. Promote diversity of ideas
A healthy democracy requires a plurality of voices engaging in constructive dialogue. When decisions are made behind closed doors, there is no assurance that they will represent the interests or concerns of citizens and residents.
By opening up the policy process to include diverse voices, the social fabric is strengthened and public trust is enhanced.
6. Facilitate ongoing engagement between governments and citizens
Instead of dealing with angry residents and constituents or future lawsuits down the line, consistent and sincere public engagement early on will help to mitigate issues. Rather than consulting with citizens after the decisions have been made, people are usually responsive and eager to participate on local issues when governments work with them right from the start.
By proactively addressing concerns right from the start, governments will be able to identify what the key issues are, work with residents to resolve issues, and where not possible, mitigate harms.
At the end of the day, political leaders must understand that building trust takes time, and “a series of repeated games need to take place between the citizenry and the government before trust can flourish.” (OECD, 2011) Particularly in communities with a history of mistrust between residents and the government, there cannot be an immediate expectation of trust: it must be earned through repeated positive experiences which demonstrate that the government is engaging with citizens in good faith.
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To get started with your online public consultation, visit placespeak.com.
Great post Mary, I really like the reference to participatory budgeting which is coming up more and more.