The following is the third in a series of columns highlighting the importance of putting the public at the heart of communications strategies. This column focuses on the opportunity for both government and businesses to bring the public into the development of public policy.
Because we live in an age when large institutions can connect easily with the public, there is now an expectation they will do so – and do so often. This is particularly true of government. Social media has led to a revival of social activism, which has, in turn, created a renewed spirit of active citizenship. The public wants to help create public policy.
To that end, many Western governments have begun to leverage social media or other digital platforms to consult and collaborate with the public on new policy initiatives. The benefits of this type of policy participation are significant. If the public has had the opportunity to actively shape a new policy, it is far more likely that they will actively support it.
Some critics argue that it would cost too much to engage with the public on every policy question. Others suggest that putting the public in charge of policy would undermine our elected representatives. Some even believe that putting policy in the hands of the public would lead to chaos. I disagree, respectfully, with these doomsday scenarios.
First, I would argue that the costs of not engaging the public on public policy questions would be higher. When governments introduce new policies without having involved the public, there is a risk that the public will reject them and then quickly mobilize its opposition in ways that force governments to back down, reverse course, and start fresh.
Second, consulting and collaborating with the public on policy questions can actually help restore confidence in our elected representatives. By taking into account the views of the public, including those who live in their districts or ridings, elected officials can make decisions which are more representative of the will and wishes of constituents.
Third, and finally, engaging with the public on policy questions can strengthen public trust in government and democracy as a whole. When the public feels disengaged from government, they become dissatisfied with government. This is particularly true when the public doesn’t feel as though they’ve been given a say or that they’ve been heard.
In most Western democracies, political parties and their candidates are elected based on some kind of policy platform. Inevitably, however, issues will arise between elections that weren’t debated, or even discussed, during the previous election campaign. In those cases, the question arises as to whether the government has a mandate to respond.
Edmund Burke, the great politician and political philosopher, believed such issues should be left to the judgment of elected officials: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” Of course, as others have noted, Burke then failed to win his next election.
Whether Burke was right in his time, his concept is now almost 250 years old. Much has changed, both in terms of the capacity to engage with the public and in terms of the capacity of the average voter to understand issues of the day. Information technology delivers more information to, and from, the public today than at any time in our history.
Of course, any discussion of engaging the public on policy issues between elections must consider the question of referenda. As the Brexit referendum demonstrated in stark terms, going to the public on major policy questions can have major consequences. They can have political and financial costs, sometimes far greater than one might imagine.
Moreover, a referendum may not be appropriate in every case – especially when the question involves a relatively minor or technical policy question. Ultimately, we must find a middle ground. A means of engaging the public between elections that is greater than consultation but short of a formal referendum. It must be binding, but not constraining.
Rob Mariani is a Senior Vice President with Hill+Knowlton Strategies, and serves as General Manager of their Ottawa Offices.