As I arrived in Washington DC for a conference on Democratic Participation and Engagement, the dark rain swept landscape of empty billboards and boarded up factories outside the train window contrasted with the current optimism of US engagement practitioners. After eight years of an administration with limited interest in enhancing democracy at home practitioners sense a real shift in culture. In his first months in office President Obama has arguably done more for citizen engagement than president Bush did throughout his eight year tenure at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government, the Serve America Act, and the launch of sites such as speak of the culture shift that is taking place in the US at the Federal level.

I find that international meetings are a good way to learn more about your own situation; by comparing with others it is easier to understand the UKs strengths and weaknesses. Given the chance to present the UK situation to leading members of the Obama Administration has made me reflect on where the UKs strength lies (focussing primarily on the English context, as devolution makes it hard to generalise ).

Over the past decade we have seen a massive increase in interest around engagement across the UK, both in theory and in practice. I think the UKs real strength lies in institutionalising engagement. We didn’t invent participatory budgeting, nor are we the best at using the method, but it is only in England that participatory budgeting is actively promoted from the centre with ministerial support, a dedicated capacity building unit and financial and status incentives for local authorities to adopt the process. UK departments have in the past years also funded around half a dozen support structures for engagement in areas such as healtheDemocracy and Science engagement. The main lessons for the US lie in this institutionalisation process. Despite numerous new laws and legal requirements to engage, billions of pounds invested and thousands of public consultations per year the public actually feels slightly less able to influence decisions today than they did in 2001. This ‘Empowerment gap’ is not the return on investment we hoped for!

The Obama administration is in a good position to learn from the UKs good and the bad experiences when it comes to institutionalising engagement. My top recommendations are:

  1. Strike now – Opportunities to affect change are often time limited. Major reforms late in elected terms are often interpreted as cynical attempts to regain popularity or pander to partisan interest.
  2. Provide support – Civil servants have not traditionally been trained or encouraged to engage with the public, and this agenda can be challenging to established cultures and values. Set up structures to support government in transition and make sure that they have the trust of practitioners and government insiders and that they are independent and sustainably funded. The UK experience has been that structures without these attributes are often short-lived and have limited impact.
  3. Be prepared to handle private sector involvement and legal challenges -As engagement became a core activity for government large private firms will become more active and legal challenges will become more common. This has an impact on the level of trust amongst the public.
  4. Be honest. Be clear about what is and isn’t on the table; in the long term the public is more likely to trust a politician who is clear where he or she has made their mind up already than one who runs a sham consultation just to look good. Don’t ask if you don’t want to know the answer.
  5. Balance the benefits of institutionalisation (professionalisation, scaling up and impact) with the risks of engagement becoming target driven rather than citizen centred. When engagement becomes focussed on what government can get out of it and loses sight of what is in it for the citizens, it can become disempowering.

I don’t want to sound too negative. Institutionalisation can and has made a huge difference in terms of the scale and impact of engagement, but I for one want to combine these benefits with true and meaningful empowerment.

Stay tuned for my post conference blog which will be up in a few days and will explore what we can learn in the UK from the exciting activities taking place in the US.

Image by Malias (Creative Commons Licence -Attribution)