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Beyond the bubble

19 October 2016

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Carolyn Hendriks is a Senior Lecturer in Public Policy and Governance. Carolyn’s work examines the democratic practices of contemporary governance, particularly with respect to public deliberation, inclusion and political representation.

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Politicians are more interested in incorporating public input into their political decisions than most of us might think, Carolyn Hendriks and Jennifer Lees-Marshment write.

Today political leaders around the globe are increasingly seeking direct input from affected publics. This is especially the case for elected officials engaged in local and regional politics where citizen engagement tends to find its home. But participatory ideas are also making their way into the leadership practices of many state and national politicians. Indeed some well-known leaders have been strong advocates of public participation such as President Obama, who on his first day in office, signed a Memorandum on Open Government and Transparency calling for greater openness, participatory and collaboration in the political process. Here in Australia, participation has been part of the leadership style of several current and past politicians such as Cathy McGowan, Jay Wetherill, Alana MacTiernan and Geoff Gallop.

When politicians seek to engage with the public it is easy to be cynical about their underlying motives. Are they ‘consulting’ citizens to defend a pre-determined decision, to co-opt dissenting voices, or to win votes?

Emerging research suggests that politicians are far more interested in incorporating public input into their political decisions than most of us might think. However, in their eyes, not all sources of public input are equal. Politicians prefer informal, personal interactions with the public because they offer more useful and constructive inputs for decision-making than structured public forums.

These findings emerged from a broader project on public leadership and public input in which 51 interviews were conducted with former ministers and state secretaries in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States during 2013-2014. Interviewees included a diverse group of political leaders in terms of political ideology, gender, seniority, portfolio and levels of experience. The interviews explored a diversity of themes including public input, public life and the nature and challenges of political leadership in contemporary democracies. Across all these themes we found no discernible difference in the nature of comments according to gender, ideology, country or current/former status.

The interviews reveal how leaders use public input, what particular qualities of public input they find most valuable, and their ideal form.

What we found may be hard for cynics of public participation to digest.

First, senior politicians across five democracies described how in their experience public input is an essential ingredient for effective decision-making and leadership. Many leaders explained how public input informs their public judgments and enables them to stay connected to ‘real’ people outside the political bubble.

Second, political leaders place a high premium on ‘constructive’ forms of public input, for example, inputs from citizens and groups that are informed, considered, dialogical and pragmatic.

Third, many experienced decision-makers value personalised forms of public inputs, such as spontaneous conversations with individuals on the street or marketplace, or small face-to-face meetings. In these more informal and often unstructured interactions, political leaders are able to step aside from their advisors and partisan politics, and connect with ‘real’ people and hear their personal stories.

Fourth, leaders described how in an ideal world they would prefer public input to be interactive so that diverse views could come together to find common ground. However, in their experience formal participatory processes rarely produce the kind of open, constructive, and usable public input that they need to inform their collective judgements. Our data suggests that leaders respond to this conundrum pragmatically: they use formal public engagement to build legitimacy and ownership, but rely on more informal spontaneous interactions with the public to inform their decision-making and ground their public leadership.

To be clear we are not arguing that political leaders always listen to public input. They may want to listen and be responsive to the public, but this does not necessarily mean that their actions accord with these preferences, and of course they also listen to other sources, such as civil servants, advisors and their party. Yet our core finding is this: many political leaders are keen to connect with everyday people in constructive ways so that they can be informed about different views and the public consequences of collective decisions.

The practical implications of this research are mixed. On the one hand, they suggest a huge ‘market’ within executive government for more interactive forms of public engagement: political leaders are indeed open for participatory business. On the other hand, there is less appetite for highly structured and formal modes of public engagement at the top level of government.

Practitioners of public engagement, together with government agencies and departments, need to create more opportunities for political leaders to interact informally with diverse publics outside, and in addition to, formal participatory mechanisms. Contemporary political leaders want constructive conversations with citizens, not staged participatory performances.

This article was originally published by Policy Forum.net, the website of the Asia and the Pacific Policy Society and Crawford School, in collaboration with Pop Politics Aus. For a more detailed exposition of this piece, see the conference paper by Carolyn M. Hendriks & Jennifer Lees-Marshment presented at The Australian Political Studies Association Annual Conference in UNSW, Sydney, 25-28 September 2016.

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