Monday, September 03, 2007

What's in a name 2

Gordon Brown is talking of creating citizen juries to help determine policy. These, like a jury in a court of law, hear evidence from experts and deliberate the key points in order to reach a verdict. The main principle is, as with most research, that once a small sample of a population have heard the evidence their deliberations can fairly represent the perspectives of the wider community. The Guardian heralds this as a 'New type of politics', but is it?

A criticism of New Labour under Blair was the use of focus groups. The principle of a focus group is to collect together a number of people who are representative of their broader social grouping on the principle that they will discuss and debate issues and offer the solutions that the wider group would find atractive. I have used these to aid the design of shampoo bottles (it paid the bills) and to find out why voters in safe seats are less likely to vote and why those in marginal seats are more likely to (a forthcoming publication).
So is there a difference? Fundamentally no, but they have different connotations. Within the research industry focus groups are highly respected and often used, within political circles they are suggested as a sign of weak government, Citizen juries are sold as consultation among the informed, an idea which first emerged with the Big Conversation, but can be described as a departure from the focus group.

Speaking in June of this year Gordon Brown claimed the following:

“In 2007, you have got to engage and involve people much more… engage them in discussing a big issue, it could be smoking, I did one on that, I did one on the British way of life… you work through the problem. I believe that citizens juries and citizen jury service could be a thing of the future: inviting people in all parts of the country… 100 or 200 or 300 people discussing an issue through. [They] feedback to government and then government responding and saying this is what we are going to do as a result. This is an important way of consulting.”

A new open politics perhaps, better use of marketing techniques perhaps, and it is the name that separates them from being the focus groups used by Philip Gould to design numerous Labour advertisements, slogans and campaign messages. But to be taken seriously there must be a visible link between the consultation and policy, if not it will be dismissed as an empty marketing technique now it has been sold to the media.

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