Select Committee on Public Administration First Report


The Public Administration Select Committee has agreed to the following Report:—


  1. Governments should be held to account by the citizen for the decisions they take and the services they provide. Citizens must be given an opportunity to influence policy and to participate in debate. Voting in elections is important, but it is not enough in itself.

  2. The Public Administration Select Committee has long had an interest in building better accountability, and at the end of the last Parliament it published a wide-ranging Report on the subject: Public Participation: Issues and Innovations.[2] Part of the context for the Report was a serious shortfall in public participation, including a turnout figure of 71 per cent in the 1997 General Election—the lowest for nearly 50 years. The Report's recommendations included proposals which would strengthen public consultation, promote innovative ideas for public participation in the political process and encourage more people to vote in elections.

  3. The Government has now responded; its Response is attached as an Appendix to this Report. It is generally positive, explaining how the Government is trying to meet our points by introducing innovation in voting, new and more consistent ways of consultation and other useful initiatives. We welcome this support for the Committee's approach.

  4. However, the situation has changed dramatically in the last few months as the crisis in public participation has deepened. The problem can be summed up in one stark statistic: 59 per cent—the figure for the turnout in the June 2001 General Election. Not since the extension of the suffrage in 1918 has there been such a low level of participation in the electoral process. The reasons for it may be debated, but not its seriousness for our democracy. We find it extraordinary that this collapse in electoral participation, put alongside other evidence on civic disengagement, has not been treated as a civic crisis demanding an appropriate response. Political life has simply continued as if nothing has happened. We believe that a Democracy Commission should be established as a matter of urgency to consider how this crisis can be responded to constructively and with imagination, and we believe that our Report makes a contribution to this process.

  5. Other forms of participation continue to meet with only limited success. For instance, the People's Panel, which was set up to seek the views of a large sample of the public on policy issues, has not been used to test opinion on specific policy proposals. The Report described the Panel as a 'missed opportunity'.[3]

  6. In these circumstances, the Government's Response falls short of what is needed. We are concerned that, unlike other Government documents, it contains few targets and timetables for delivery. There is for instance a programme, being developed by the Office of the e-Envoy, to enhance the use of the Internet to increase participation in the democratic process. However, there are no target dates for this important work. By contrast, the Government has set out strict targets for the achievement of the objectives of e-government, which puts people in touch with government services by electronic means. The Committee believes that the same urgency now needs to be applied to e-democracy.

  7. The Committee recommended a close partnership with other bodies—including local authorities—to spread good practice in participation. We find the government's response extremely complacent, referring to a three-year-old policy document. We urge it to take a much more proactive stance in promoting good practice in this vital area.

  8. We are also anxious to see progress on another area of great public debate—science and its interpretation. As another recommendation stressed, there is an urgent need for better means of exploring the views of citizens on issues of scientific uncertainty. Among the possibilities are 'deliberative' techniques which allow consideration in greater depth than is the case with simple opinion poll questions. The citizen must be given every appropriate opportunity to participate in discussion about the scientific judgements that drive policy. The Government's response on this recommendation stresses the cost of consultation, saying that expensive deliberative techniques are "not the right way to tackle all issues of scientific uncertainty." However, the Committee believes that this fails to take proper account of the cost—sometimes a very high cost—which can be attached to rushed government decisions based on contested scientific judgements. This is an issue which needs further debate.

  9. These subjects are vitally important to the proper functioning of democracy, and we will be returning to them shortly. We will be seeking oral evidence from a Minister on the Government Response, so that we can be reassured that the Government is tackling the issue of public participation with the seriousness and urgency that are required.

2  Sixth Report (Session 2000-01) HC 373-I Back

3  Sixth Report (Session 2000-01) HC 373-I, paragraph 68 Back

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Prepared 7 November 2001