As a supporter of direct democracy, recent attempts by both Westminster and local council administrations to consult the public on cuts has left me in two minds. On the one hand, it is indisputably right that the public should have a say in public spending reductions that are going to have an impact on every aspect of our lives for decades to come. As much as those seeking guidance will get unworkable (and illegal) suggestions to cut the entire foreign aid budget or to bring back the death penalty to reduce the cost of the prison service, it is common sense to consult those who know best – those who consume the services in question.
On the other hand, I feel distinctly uncomfortable about the flip-side of consulting the public on cuts. People may feel better that they are asked their opinion (whether they are taken any notice of is another matter), but in taking part they are co-opted into the process and so legitimate the whole idea that such extreme retrenchment is needed at all.
East Sussex County Council has recently launched on its website a snappily titled flash game called ‘Budget Simulator Challenge’. At first glance, it all seems very reasonable and in good faith. You are presented with eleven areas of council spending and asked to raise or lower the funds made available to each in order to make a 30 per cent cut over the next four years.
The presentation of the whole thing is my first gripe. The aspiring retrencher is guided through the process by a cartoon of a classic overfed bureaucrat which appears to fuel the stereotype -whether intentionally or not – that budgets are already bloated and ripe for trimming.
You are asked to cut each area of spending with very little contextual knowledge of what each category involves nor how much is spent, or what impact your suggestions are going to have. Only after you have submitted your choices does the podgy little bureaucrat inform you that you have pulled millions from supporting vulnerable children and adults and gutted local community policing.~
If you bother to finish you will find that you need to cut all but one of the budget areas by the maximum 50% allowed in order to reach the overall target, which, by the way is non-negotiable: Ominous red lettering at the bottom informs you that “You can not proceed until you decrease the budget by at least 30 per cent”. The whole thing is presented as a fait acompli – there is no opportunity to debate whether the cuts are necessary or even wise and nor is there any opportunity to go beyond merely clicking your mouse to cut a million here or a million there and make more detailed comments on individual programmes.
Edinburgh City Council’s ‘Our City Our Future’ consultation has run into similar difficulties. Only 1700 people out of a population of 460,000 responded and there were vast differences between those responding online and those via a postal survey. Residents and community groups attending consultation events complained about the quality and clarity of the background information provided and that a number of questions that were due for consultation were withdrawn.
Whether the disappointing results of these consultations is a cause or a consequence of the lack of public participation is an open question: Councils clearly are not putting enough effort into advertising their consultations and could do a better job of making them accessible to all but an unwillingness on the part of some local residents to engage in some areas clearly doesn’t help matters.
Council leaders themselves are in a difficult position not of their own making, and it does seem unfair to lay the blame at their feet, but they need to be more than the bearers of bad news; they must do more than throw a budget reduction at the feet of the electorate and expect them to carry the can. Local councils can no doubt make some efficiencies but councillors need to be more proactive and open in the way they consult the public and engage people in deeper, more fundamental and long term questions of how they want local services to work rather than asking which ones they want to cut more than others.
The process must also work both ways; local representatives are right to ask their constituents to play a part in national spending decisions but they also have a duty to convey back to national leaders the anger that is felt about the responsibility ordinary people across the country are having to carry for a crisis not of their own creation. Only then can there be a more rounded, more genuine, more equal and thus more productive discussion about the future of our public services.