Railing against the cuts?
09 June 2010
In 1941, Lord Beaverbrook – Churchill’s Minister of Supply - passed an order compulsorily requisitioning all post-1850 iron gates and railings for the war effort. The metal was to be taken to steelworks, melted down and turned into munitions. The propaganda value of this was not lost on the government. In a time of crisis and austerity: make the public feel they are involved and can ‘do their bit’. It’s good for morale.
In 2010, a similar sentiment is being tapped into. Through a proposed process of consultation and deliberation with the public, the government is establishing a broad consensus on both the need for deep cuts and their focus – all in the name of balancing the deficit, or else… Thus, it aims to establish a kind of legitimacy for the pain which is sure to follow.
Public consultations do have their merits but can also mislead, misinform and even backfire.
The Work Foundation has significant experience of conducting such deliberative exercises about the Public Value of services and institutions in the public realm. We have conducted ‘Citizen Jury’ exercises to assess the extent to which the public see the value of the Royal Opera House or big art collections. We conducted a large survey of the public to establish how much they would be willing to pay for the BBC Licence Fee and we have worked with the British Library, the Metropolitan Police, the London Borough of Lewisham and many others to identify precisely how the public judge whether a ‘public’ service is valued by the man and woman in the street.
A couple of lessons emerge from our work in this area. First, consultation is a good idea. In general, the public like to feel their views are being sought and that they can, even in a small way, play a part in decisions which affect their lives or the services available to them.
Second, public consultation only paint one part of the picture. This means that, while many people might agree that managers in the NHS are surplus to requirements, very few can say with any insight what these managers actually do. Nor do they know what would happen to clinical or nursing workloads if large numbers of managerial posts were culled. So the consultation cannot descend into a crude popularity contest among public services or public servants.
Another risk , is that the public might feel conned about the whole deliberative process and that it is seen as a ‘sham’. They won’t want images of nurses or police officers joining the dole queues blamed on them, for example.
Back in 1941, Lord Beaverbrook found this out to his cost. Almost as soon as the council lorries disappeared with piles of railings, rumours began that the requisitioning of railings was no more than a propaganda exercise. To this day, nobody really knows what happened to them – but the popular view was that they were dumped at sea.
The government cannot afford for its consultation to be viewed with the same cynicism. Nor can it allow the views of the public to remain unfiltered or un-refined. The situation is too serious for shallow gestures.