I’ve been to a couple of meetings recently which perfectly illustrate two areas I cite in the book as going wrong.
The first was billed as a ‘consultation’ on sports provision in the town, put on by the District Council who own land on which sports happen, contract out sports provision, and have a top level strategy. Half a dozen cabinet members at the high table start off by telling us there is no money and there won’t be; they are already well on the way to a new long term contract for the sports centre; and we can talk about anything else we like. A few representatives of under facilitated sports pluck up courage and put over their views. We are promised a report – and some weeks later there is no sign of anything.
The second was put on by local District councillors rather than cabinet members. An opportunity to hear what is being done about particularly bad flytipping which has been a real problem in one road for 20 years. Again, the enforcement officer, district politicians and police are on the high table to give us facts figures and power point. Poorly chaired comments follow (from an animated and angry audience). Much of the audience and all the politicians remain convinced that better cameras and more resources are the answer – despite the last cameras being stolen, clearing up alone expecting to cost £45,000 and reductions making a larger budget most unlikely.
My point here is not to discuss other possible solutions – it is that the way meetings are run sets out from the first moment where both power and expertise is seen to be. In the first case one can argue this is honest – the District do have the power and have no intention of consulting (which as a separate point further adds to growing cynicism with political process).
In the second it completely misses a trick. The meeting focussed my thoughts on the definition of insanity: “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” – usually attributed to Einstein. For 20 years trying to catch flytippers has not worked – a broader public engagement might well bring up new left field ideas which might work. The quote is helpful in recognising that we cannot expect the public to contribute and engage if we treat them as idiots from the moment they walk into a meeting. We need radically different appraoches to engagement.
Or do we? If the aim of the policians is to be seen to be doing something, without too much stress, then perhaps both meetings achieved what they set out to for those who organised them?