The Government has decided to re-run its consultation on the future of the BBC after the first was “hijacked” by left-wing campaign group 38 Degrees. Good on them.
According to the Daily Mail, an astonishing 92 per cent of responses were “whipped up” by the organisation, which sent a string of emails to its members describing the proposed reforms in absurd and partisan terms.
The Department for Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) apparently had to re-assign 25 staff for three months, and sifting out the submissions took 10,000 man-hours and cost the public some £250,000.
Nigel Huddleston, a Tory MP who sits on the Culture, Media, and Sport Committee, is quoted as saying: “Certainly in my experience, 38 Degrees is far from representative of the general voice of Britain.”
It’s past time that public bodies started pushing back against what are essentially spam campaigns which actually hinder genuine public engagement.
Take this BBC consultation as an example: even if the Government hadn’t gone so far as to essentially declare it void, it was abundantly obvious to the Conservatives that it had been swamped by people responding to an email which accused them of trying to “rip the heart out” of the Corporation.
Rather than a balanced collection of genuine concerns which could be used to create better legislation, the whole thing is reduced to an adversarial stitch-up hardly likely to get Tory lawmakers to change their minds.
Or consider the wider effect on something like MPs’ offices.
Prior to the days of low-effort mass correspondence, a constituent who took the time to write to their MP could usually hope for a personal response. This is a valuable and important part of the relationship between representative and the represented.
In many instances, constituents who write a unique letter on something that matters to them personally will still get that sort of service.
But if you band together to send your MP several hundred pre-written letters about a given topic, what you’ll get in reply is a stock response from the Policy Research Unit (PRU), topped and tailed with your address and their signature.
As a rule of thumb, don’t expect more effort to go into replying to your communication than you put into it in the first place.
Despite such efficiencies, such campaigns do have a broader negative effect by turning public communication into something public figures have to put their head down and wade through.
Yet it would be wrong to lay all the blame for undermining communication between the state and the public at the ‘supply side’.
The other month, I waded through Transport for London’s ‘consultation’ on new regulations for Uber. It was a total chore.
The format was thus: a short piece explaining why focus group respondents and “some stakeholders” supported a proposed rule; then you were asked whether you agreed with it; then there was a box for you to give your reasons if you didn’t.
For those looking to crack down on Uber, the whole thing would have been a breeze: just click ‘Agree’ 22-odd times and you’re done.
For those coming with an open mind are presented the case in favour of controls on Uber, with no counter-case. If they want to demur from TfL’s proposals, they’ve got to do their own research.
If you end up justifying your opposition to the great majority of proposed restrictions, as I did, responding to that questionnaire took an age.
It was one of the most transparently skewed efforts to ‘gauge public opinion’ that I’ve ever encountered. Yet more than any single opinion poll, it could have a direct impact on state policy.
According to the Mail, the second attempt at the BBC consultation will consist of “take the form of focus groups and opinion polls”.
Done properly, according to British Polling Council rules, these could provide a much more accurate, scientific attempt to reflect public attitudes than a self-selecting free-for-all, designed in-house, ever could.
Perhaps the Government ought to make the use of genuinely independent assessment methods the mandatory mechanism for conducting public consultations by state agencies.
That would sideline the clicktivists at 38 Degrees and the rigged quizzes from TfL, and help to ensure policy makers were in tune with genuine public opinion.