Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Consulting Conservatives

An email went around yesterday from David Cameron, this announced the launch of Stand Up, Speak Up "an online platform for everyone in the country to get involved in shaping the next Conservative manifesto... Politics is about giving a lead, and we have set out a clear direction for our country: more green, more local, more family-friendly - less arrogant about what politicians can do on their own, and more optimistic about what we can achieve if we all work together. That's why it matters so much to me that we ask for your views in helping to shape our election manifesto.... [BUT!!!] As I made clear at the start of this process, those recommendations do not automatically become Conservative policy. There will be some proposals we do not agree with. In some areas, hard choices will have to be made between competing priorities. And of course, we will only commit to policies that Britain can afford."

The site intro focuses on the 'Fixing Our Broken Society' agenda and includes a negative broadcast detailing the failures of Blair and Brown; whether or not that is a good thing is open to debate. But the site then draws the visitor to view policy documents, just follow the 'Join the Policy Debate' link, well download PDFs anyway - the offering is either the 5 minute, 15 minute or hour version. Perhaps to be more interactive on substance key ideas should be on the page itself but the information is there listing the problems policy wonks have identified.

The next stage is to vote or debate. Voting is a pretty simplistic affair, you can say which is most important and from a list of six three can be selected - so personal debt, educational failure [not loaded at all], family breakdown, voluntary sector, economic dependency or addiction. Well it is a list certainly. But the debate is the more interesting section. Each of the categories has a debating area with a list of topics, some generating a lot of comment. For example the section on tax credits for married couples gained 70 comments in two days (15th & 16th July). Response from the Conservatives is promised. Site Editor, Stephen Crabb MP, using the title 'Social Justice Champion', promises: "I’ll be watching the voting, reading your comments and giving my feedback on a regular basis". As an extra, contributors can sign up for the chance to win one of five places to debate policy with David Cameron himself, though signing up is by taking part in all the stages of the read, vote, debate process - so selected due to their views perhaps.

But what is the function of this. Well it certainly appears to offer any visitor who wishes to register the chance to contribute to policy development. The caveat in the Cameron email is honest and sensible, though how all the comments will be aggregated is less than clear. The fear if there is a direct link to policy though is the notion of tyranny exacted by the minority who choose to take part, and the party must be aware of this so to what extent can they use the comments. Alternatively is this simply an exercise in gathering supportive comments that they can they quote back to demonstrate there is public support for a policy. Hard to say, but that makes far more sense than trying to use these comments for design purposes.

If this is the purpose, it is all about creating social acceptance around their policy proposals. A politician saying that we should encourage marriage, that schools are failing or whatever may well be mistrusted. The public saying it can make people who have no personal knowledge more likely to agree. A politician publicly launching a consultation exercise, allowing it to run, then quoting from contributions to reinforce ideas already in their PDFs, is suggesting that there is some sense of co-production taking place [shared ownership of ideas] but really it is a process of leading people to think a certain way through the careful detailing of the recommendations presented in their report and how they were reached.

Clearly if a policy is universally criticised it will probably disappear from the manifesto but on the whole it appears that just like Labour's Big Conversation, unless visitors have detailed experience or knowledge, comments will largely be simple gut reactions driven by ideological reactions to the proposals. It may offer a sense of what the nation thinks but it is questionable as to whether any real debate will take place and hard to see how it could inform policy design. But it equally may not matter, appearance may be sufficient!

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