There has not been a month in the past five years in Greater Cambridge without a consultation – some with significant bearing on the region’s future, two of which are currently open: the County Council’s Climate Change and Environment Strategy and Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire’s Local Plan.
Many of the same people and organisations respond, but the vast majority do not, creating a self-selection bias in the responses. Questionnaires are often poorly designed, making quantitative analysis largely meaningless. For instance, the above-mentioned Climate Change consultation allows people to rate every action as “very important”, rather than prioritise them, even though the council has insufficient resources to do everything concurrently.
Furthermore, question-and-answer consultations measure people’s attitudes as if they are static. Attitudes can and do change with increased understanding of a problem and potential solutions, exposure to influential examples and peer pressure.
To address the climate crisis, air pollution and road congestion meaningfully, we all have to adopt different attitudes, for example towards solo-driving, long-haul flights and single-use plastics. Only then will we be motivated to change our behaviours and accept policies that require us to do so. Consultations aren’t doing that.
This is where “deliberative democracy” can help: a representative group of people consider evidence, proposals and trade-offs in detail before making a decision. That is how government is supposed to work, but largely doesn’t. At a local level, political divisions make it impossible to have honest, cogent debates about difficult problems; and institutional boundaries make it impossible to deliver coherent and effective policies – most especially on transport, which is now the responsibility of three separate management hierarchies.
To make necessary radical changes to de-carbonise the economy, restore balance with nature, enhance public health and promote social justice, we have to do government differently – from public engagement through decision-making to policies and actions for change. I believe it needs civil society to lead that reform, starting with broad and deep engagement with communities, academia, businesses and other organisations.
I have a plan, and I’m seeking assistance and advice to develop and realise it. If you’re interested, please email me at email@example.com.
This article was first published in the Cambridge Independent on 22 January 2020.