This article first featured in The MJ
On the morning of polling day of the EU referendum, the #UseAPen meme began to trend on twitter – so much so that by mid-afternoon the Washington Post had reported on it and canvassers were encountering it on doorsteps.
For those not familiar with #UseAPen, this was a widespread concern which spread on social media, about the idea that ballots cast in pencil would be rubbed out by electoral officials. Many went so far as to attend polling stations with spare pens for fellow voters.
For those who work in politics or government, the episode may be source of mild amusement. We can chuckle at #UseAPen, surely, and then move on…?
Yet, it seems that the episode actually represents something we should take very seriously indeed.
Those who turned up at polling stations with spare biros were believers in democracy, after all – not detractors from it. Indeed, at the heart of this apparently trivial story is a failure. A failure, for sure, among those who spread the #UseAPen rumour, to understand the realities of the political process. But a bigger failure too, of the one-way, paternalist relationship which often exists between organisations and those they serve.
The incident shows how many conversations between institutions and the public have broken down – and how hearsay, misinformation and gut instinct have often filled the void.
People talk about “post-truth” politics, but I’d instead call this post-trust politics. Over the last few decades we’ve moved into an era where citizens want to speak as well as listen. They’re less deferential to government and to experts, and they have more faith in their own instincts. This is, overwhelmingly, a good thing. But organisations have too often failed to adapt or to have a grown-up dialogue. Correspondingly, as the chart shows, trust has deteriorated.
Chart: Agree that “I trust the govt to put the needs of the nation first” – NatCen
So, what’s all this got to do with local government?
The reality, as I discussed with local government leaders and officers at an event last week, is that post-trust politics is something which will fall upon councils to solve. As those working on the frontline, local authorities face challenges and changes across a whole variety of services. To overcome these things it is vital to engage and consult properly with residents.
The decline in trust may not be local government’s fault, but we have an opportunity here to get a conversation going in a way that bigger organisations cannot. Through strong consultation and good engagement, we can put firmly behind us the sort of “tick-box” culture that leads people to feel ignored – and which spills over, in the long run, into things like #UseAPen. Only by residents genuinely understanding and inputting in decisions can trust be re-established.
Moreover, as we enter the post-Brexit period, it looks like there may increasingly be challenges for social cohesion. Cohesion is a concept which is always, in my experience, crucially undermined by the erosion of trust. I’ve seen a number of instances where dialogue between council and community has broken down, leaving the field open for those with a non-inclusive agenda. To stop this from happening, councils need to get much better at involving residents in the choices they make, so that different parts of the community do not turn on each other.
So, as the #UseAPen hashtag drifts out of usage let’s not just remember it as an amusing anecdote from a bad night. Let’s instead look at how local government can lead the way in stopping such a breakdown of trust from happening again.
David Evans is Director of The Campaign Company and a former Assistant General Secretary of the Labour Party