Working closely with local government as I do, I had to come to terms a long time ago with the acute (and sometimes frustrating) impact that public opinion can have on policy making. The big areas of responsibility for local authorities are those which can spark the most emotional and personal community responses – schools, potholes, parking, children’s centres, planning decisions, safeguarding and old people’s homes to name just a few. The direct relationship between residents and these services, the universal nature of the customer group and the proximity of policy makers to voters at local government level only serves to strengthen this effect.
The most obvious example of this is reflected in policy-making regarding that most sacred of cows – libraries. Of course, the consultant in me struggles to accept widespread council decisions to maintain the majority of libraries, despite the scale and potential impact of cuts in council spending, especially when the fairly damning evidence on the cost and usage and the anticipated future decline is considered. Yet, I can accept that in a democracy, it is right to take into account public opinion as an indicator of the problems faced by people and the kind of support and facilities they value the most. People’s feelings, aspirations and preferences are valid, and policy-making cannot be reduced to a spreadsheet.
What has been increasingly worrying to me recently however, is the extent to which heavily mistaken or misinformed public opinion is able to influence the policy debate. This was brought home most powerfully by this telling survey last week about Britain’s perceptions of some of the major policy issues of the day. As the Guardian heralded, the public are “wrong about nearly everything” judging benefit fraud to be £24 of every £100 claimed (it’s 70p) and incorrectly assuming that capping benefits at £26k will save more money than ceasing to provide child benefit for the wealthy (in reality the former will save £290m compared to a potential £1.7bn from the latter.)
The examples reflecting this trend are endless. I recently worked for a council who had spent four or five years trying to reduce the hours of street lighting to save money and benefit the environment, but had failed because of the public perception that crime would increase as a result. As it turns out, criminals actually prefer to work in well-lit areas.
A regional health body recently did a huge piece of work to rethink the way that ambulance services were delivered – moving away from the old ambulance stations to more local hubs. The change would have increased the speed that ambulances could get to emergency situations (it is currently below the national target), increased the number of ambulance hubs from 12 to over 100, increased the facilities available to the ambulance workers in between jobs, increased the ability to ensure ambulances were maintained and well stocked with less time off the road and reduced the cost of the service. Yet public perception of the situation led to a highly mobilised “save our ambulance stations” campaign.
It is widely accepted that the public will vigorously campaign for the maintenance of a local hospital, even if (as is the case in London for example) your chance of surviving the same operation can vary by as much as 50% between two local hospitals and your quality of care would be vastly improved by the lower performing option being closed down and the resources redistributed to high quality care setting.
So what does this mean for policy-makers? As a starting point, officers and Members should make sure that they at least are in possession of the facts rather than the fiction when it comes to decision making and communicating those decisions. There may also be a role for the council to play in developing and cultivating relationships with the press that might better enable them to tell the full story and help residents understand the rationale and implications (although this is challenging in a politicised environment). Thinking about the way that consultation and community engagement happens, to prevent the problem of a “policy elite” of usual suspects effecting undue influence is also critical.
At the centre of this however, is a need to ensure we are garnering public opinion in the right way – seeking views on the outcomes residents want to see rather than the detail of delivery. Communities (and taxpayers) should and must be able to inform the debate on their needs, the quality of service they want to receive and the structures or assets that they value – but design, commissioning and implementation of services is a question for those with the skills and information on hand to make sure it is done in the right way.