Engagement Could Be The Tonic To ‘Tinkerbell’ Theories Of Government

This blog originally featured in Huffington Post

This week the LGA launched the New Conversations guide. This is a tool for councils to help with engagement, which we at TCC wrote.

The guide came out in the same week as John Elledge outlined in the New Statesman his “Tinkerbell Theory”. This, he explains, is a new political phenomenon whereby, in the face of a given challenge, political advocates of a cause wish away obstacles, claiming all you need to do is believe.

Elledge’s theory tallies with what the researcher Deborah Mattinson (also using a J.M. Barrie metaphor) called “Peter Pan politics” a little while back. Voters seek to have their cake and eat it, she said. And politicians, to avoid offering unpopular hard truths, pretend people can have it both ways.

Writing in 2009, Mattinson warned that this would lead to disillusionment. And the fairies certainly seem to be coming home to roost now, with falling trust and the rise of easy answers. Pollster John Curtice’s 2016 BSA report on Brexit, for example, draws a conclusion which chimes with Mattinson’s Peter Pan analogy:

It would appear that the debate about whether the public would prefer a ‘soft’ or a ‘hard’ Brexit has been at risk of being based on a false premise. Rather than wanting one or the other, a majority of voters apparently want both.

This isn’t to dismiss or disparage the public. Quite the opposite. Rather it’s to criticise types of government which discourage mature and equal relationships with citizens. As a frustrated member of the public once told convenors of a public meeting in Colorado: “Look, we know you’re working hard for us, but what we’ve got here is a parent-child relationship between the government and the people. What we need is an adult-adult relationship.”

So how do decision-makers address this? (And what’s guidance on local government consultation processes got to do with it?!)

Too often in the past, the instinct has been to pull up the drawbridge on the public. This is especially true when confronted with the slings and arrows of Judicial Review, Freedom of Information, social media and other newer forms of scrutiny. Politicians and public servants begin to fear those they serve. They fall back on “because we say so” ways of governing, with arm’s length consultations or tick-box engagement exercises. Often, the long-term beneficiaries of this are those who peddle Neverland solutions.

In this context, healthy, honest forms of engagement are central to fixing things – even if they might feel counter-intuitive at first. The New Conversations guide is a small part of the broad effort, within local government, to deliver this. Councils remain, as organisations, among the more trusted institutions. But they still have a key role to play in making democracy work better and in building trust – by listening and engaging more proactively, while at the same time being frank about hard choices.

For those tearing their hair out about the rise of populism, the practices of ‘consultation’ and ‘engagement’ discussed in the New Conversations guide might not automatically get the pulse racing. But for my money, giving the public more say – and encouraging them to put themselves in decision-makers’ shoes in so doing – is a key part of the solution. The more people are brought in on dilemmas the more the present impasse can be reduced – and the more Tinkerbell theories of government can be put to bed.

Written by David Evans, Founder of The Campaign Company