The state of Public Involvement in the Big Society era… a year on

We have previously commented on this blog about the non-partisan Hansard Society serial publication Audit of Political Engagement. It therefore seems a good idea to explore any changes that have occurred in the last year.

Results of this year’s Audit

Yesterday they published their Audit of Political Engagement 9, their annual survey of political and community engagement. Interviews with 1,163 people found that:

  • 42% of people said they were interested in politics – down 16% on 2010 and the lowest figure since the audit was first carried out. The 2010 was a rise of 5% in the previous year, perhaps caused by the General Election and the formation of a coalition. Last year the report pointed out that despite the rise then, “this was not matched by an increase in political engagement beyond voting or civic activity”. Will a substantial decline in interest have a big or little impact on subsequent activity?
  • 48% of people said they would definitely vote if a general election was called tomorrow – down 10% from last year and again, the lowest figure in the audit’s history. An interesting point to make is the shift to fixed term Parliaments has partly made this question redundant as commentator Mark Pack explains here, so is the question so relevant now and could it be better asked as ‘How likely is it that you will you vote in the likely 2015 General Election‘?
  • 30% said they were unlikely or absolutely certain not to vote – up 10% from 2010. This is worrying, however election turnouts have not been over the 70% mark since 1992, so this figure is not particularly new.
  • 24% of people believe the current system of coalition government is working “reasonably well” – a fall of 7%. While just 29% of Liberal Democrat supporters thought the coalition was working well – down 4% from last year – 56% of Conservatives were happy with it, a rise of 10%. This may reflect partisan perceptions of who has done better out of the Coalition over the last year.
  • The number of people who report having signed a petition, once the most popular political activity aside from voting, has declined by nine percentage points to 27%,the lowest level ever recorded in the Audit series. This may reflect a shift to other forms of online activity as it is so easy to petition online now, or join a Facebook group, for which membership may act like a petition, or even send a letter to your MP online. Perhaps the natural serial nature of the questions in the Audit needs to be revised to take account of technological changes?
  • There has long been concern that MPs are increasingly taking on a ‘social worker’ role at the constituency level, prioritising local concerns that could and perhaps should be dealt with by locally elected representatives. When faced with a hypothetical scenario of dissatisfaction with local health services, a quarter of the public (25%) say they would contact their MP for assistance with their problem. This places them
    second only to GPs (44%) as a source of support and places them significantly higher in the hierarchy of support than friends or family, local advice services or Citizens Advice Bureau, or their local council. It will be interesting to see whether this proportion changes as people realise the importance of GP’s making local decisions under the new clinical commissioning arrangements in the Health and Social Care Act 2012.
  • 56% agree their involvement in politics locally could bring about change, but only 38% actually want to be involved. On this latter result, here has been a decline of five percentage points in a year and a decline of 10 percentage points since Audit 6. A sizeable difference has now emerged between the proportions of the public who say they want to be involved in decision-making locally (38%) and nationally (33%).
  • The number of people volunteering has fallen from 29% in 2010 to 21%, despite David Cameron’s Big Society project.

Dr Ruth Fox, director of the Hansard Society’s parliament and government programme, said: “The public seem to be disgruntled, disillusioned and disengaged….Worryingly, only a quarter of the population are satisfied with our system of governing, which must raise questions about the long-term capacity of that system to command public support and confidence in the future.”

The implications of a more disgruntled, disillusioned and disengaged public

Some of these results might be quite surprising. As we said last year, engagement at a time of public expenditure reductions has certainly tended to see  a greater interest in politics compared to when the economy is calm and people are getting on with many other things in life. We pointed out “It should be remembered that in the 80′s and 90′s local election turnout was relatively high over issues such as  cuts, Rate-capping and the “Poll Tax”. It might be considered surprising that we are not seeing high levels of interest, especially after the news yesterday of a double-dip recession, impacting on people’s aspiration and perceptions of fairness in tough times. At present there has been surprisingly little central-local government conflict due to local government gaining from the recent Localism Act, with less audit and financial ring-fencing giving Council’s more flexibility in managing cuts compared to the past. Perhaps a more proper judgement should be made after next weeks local elections? People’s opinion in a survey is one thing, but their actual behaviour in walking to the polling station or posting their vote is a more significant evidence base.

Could this decline be down to a Values Gap that we have previously flagged up as a public policy challenge? Increasingly public policy debates are conducted in inner directed terms, with others feeling left out. No wonder some segments of the the public might be disgruntled, disillusioned and disengaged. What will the impact of further public sector resource reductions over the coming five years have on people’s attitudes to how their areas has been treated?

We are also now in the second year of Big Society programme, with many of its elements now in place and the long-term issue now being one of capacity building in terms of capital and human resources. We pointed out last year that, “In the 80′s and 90′s, whilst political interest was high, cuts then did not seem to lead to a large amount of extra volunteering to take the strain as places such as parks and other public spaces lost their visible staff and some services were reduced.” The big question now is would Big Society programmes be starting to make a difference? So far the evidence seems to be that the recession is making people less active, not more, which presents a fundamental challenge. Is the Big Society something that should have really been introduced in sunnier economic times or would the lack of urgency, made it also likely to struggle then too? As we said last year:

Perhaps Ministers will keep using the term Big  Society as a national brand, whilst more community oriented terminology is used at the local level by Council’s who will know doubt note this report’s contents. We have blogged here, here,  here,  here and here about the communications challenges the Big Society faces. We would also argue that values based engagement enables one to define a much wider range of Big Society behaviours relevant to the value of each target community. We have commented further about that point here.

Engagement Segmentation and Political Efficacy

In the Audit of Engagement 8 in 2011 the Hansard Society survey also identified what it described as engagement profiles:

  • Onlookers: (20%) – happy with political system but no urge to get involved
  • Unenthusiastic: (15%) – broadly content but not very interested in more involvement
  • Already active: (14%) – strongly engaged and interested in doing more
  • Willing localists: (14%) – not actively involved but willing and likely to do so locally
  • Apathetic: (14%) – disengaged without being negative and not seeking any involvement
  • Alienated: (12%) – have strongly negative views and little wish to get involved
  • Exaggerators: (11%) – say they want to be more involved but may well be over-stating their intentions

The Audit identified ‘Willing Localists’ (14% of the population) as the key target for the success of the Big Society. They are not actively involved in a wide range of community and socio-political activities but seem the most willing and realistically likely to become involved in the future.

This year the report did not measure the size of those groups and instead talked about Perceived Political Efficacy here:

Perceived political efficacy

Throughout most of the Audit series, just under a third of the public has agreed with the view that participation in the political arena by themselves or people like them can have a discernible effect on how the country is run (see Figure 14). This trend continues in this latest Audit with 32% agreeing that ‘when people like me get involved in politics, they really can change the way that the country is run’. Historically, the trend has been interrupted only three times, in Audits 1, 2 and 7, when perceived efficacy rose to 36% or 37%. Since two of these Audits were carried out immediately prior to election years, it is possible that the peaks owed partly to a heightened sense of empowerment associated with the potential to wield the vote in the general election. This suggestion finds some support in the relatively high levels of agreement this year amongst respondents who claimed to be voters: 37% of those who voted in the last election agreed that their involvement could change the country (compared with 24% of non-voters) and 38% of people who say they are likely to vote said the same (compared with 20% of those who declared themselves unlikely to vote).

Understanding political efficacy might be worth exploring further in the context of the distribution of self-efficacy within the population as a whole as one might hypothesise the same people overlapped. However the segmentation used last year has not been re-utilised. In any case we wondered last year whether it was just one segmentation too many when there was a need for more cross-cutting forms of segmentation from a public policy perspective:

Whilst this segmentation is interesting, how transferable or multi-dimensional is it to other areas of public policy?

I recently commented on the segmentations used for the Searchlight Educational Trust “Fear and Hope” report on cohesion and the World Wildlife Fund “Common Cause” report on climate change and made a point, which I quote fully below that I think can be applied here too:

“However there is also a danger that these identity segments will come across as somewhat one-dimensional as it responds to just one policy challenge, rather than testing that segmentation against a wider range of policy issues.

“We thus need segmentation that is not only dynamic, but is also built on a long-term database, tested across a large range of personal values and public policy areas, so we can track the small changes that lead to the bigger shifts in attitudes. This is why TCC utilises segmentation on the basis of the values which we believe lay underneath identity and which are driven by fundamental personal needs and the level of motivation and self-efficacy in achieving them. They are collected as part of the British Values survey which has been collected over the last 38 years.

“When those values are clustered in identifiable geo-demographic groups and are studied specifically on this one issue they may well become the sort of identities shown in this report that are then reinforced by local social norms and social proof. However those identities may not automatically translate into similar groups for other areas of policy – such as attitudes towards the Big Society, action on Climate Change or outlooks towards the public spending reductions – addressing as they do, just the issue of multiculturalism.

“In order for segmentation to be robust and effective in tackling a range of issues within any targeted community it needs to be able to address a much wider range of overlapping public policy challenges.

“There was perhaps a similar sense of one-dimensional outlook when it came to the recent World Wildlife Fund Common Cause report which addresses both values and identity in the context of the challenge of climate change, and which has been previously covered in some detail in this blog.

“The big question for the authors of both these two reports to consider, is could their different approaches be translated for use in the other policy area?

“With values based segmentation and its tried and trusted data collected over a long period as well as being part of a wider surveys collected as part of the World Values SurveyTCC uses a system, that is not just operable for one challenge, but which also applies across the public policy sphere.”

My fundamental point is this: do we really want a separate segmentation for every single public policy issue?

The danger of the three different segmentations I have now shown above, is they may illustrate some interesting groups of people, but they do little to address issues in the community which are not just about engagement or not just about community cohesion. In the end those issue are a complex mix of many factors and we do not have the luxury either the time or resources of looking at each of them separately.

So perhaps the Hansard Society were right not to repeat last year’s segmentation, however they have not properly measured both political and personal efficacy except for looking at some differences in traditional demographic groups. Perhaps looking into people’s wider motivational values is something they could consider for next year in order to take further forward this excellent series of studies?

Charlie Mansell is Research and Development Officer for The Campaign Company. If you want to see what your own primary values set is, why not take the simple Values Questionnaire here.

One Comment

Leave a Reply