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THE CONTEXT – WHY GOVERNMENTS

by | May 20

The following factors highlight the relevance and significance of the researchreported in this analysis and the recommendations made.The ‘democratic deficit’There is extensive and growing evidence that democracy is breaking down orbroken in the UK and in a number of democratic societies as evidenced by thefollowing.

Declining voter turnouts – After falling to its lowest level since WWII in2001 (59.4%), the percentage of eligible voters who voted in the 2015national UK election was only slightly higher at 66.1%. In some parts of theUK, voter turnout could be described as in crisis. For instance, in a 2012 byelection,only 12% of the constituents of Manchester Central in north-westEngland voted – the lowest voter turn-out since 1945. Under a headline‘Apathy central: where people see no point in casting a vote’, The Guardiancommented: “Either the people of Manchester Central have given up onWestminster politics or it has given up on them”.14The decline of major political parties – Membership of major politicalparties is falling in most developed Western countries. In the UK,membership of the three main political parties (Conservatives, Labour, andLiberal Democrat) reached an historic low of just 0.83% of eligible votersin the UK in 2013 and, despite some increases in the run-up to the 2015national election and 2016 EU Referendum, remained at just 1.6% of eligiblevoters in 2016.15Declining trust in government – The OECD reported in 2014 that only 40%of UK citizens trust the national government and that this has declinedsince 2007. This reflects findings in a number of developed democraciessuch as the USA where only slightly more than one-third of citizens trust thenational government, and France where less than 30% of citizens trust thenational government.16 Young people, in particular, do not trust government.For example, a recent Harvard University study found that only 14 per centof 18–29 year old Americans trust the US Congress and only 20 per centtrust the federal government (civil service).17 Factors such as the largelyexpectedfindings of the Chilcot Inquiry into the UK’s entry to the 2003 IraqWar only serve to further undermine public trust in government.14 Booth, R. (2015, April 24). Apathy central: Where young see no point in casting a vote.The Guardian Weekly, p. 15.15 Keen & Audickas (2016), see footnote 7.16 OECD. (2014). Trust in government [Web site]. Retrieved from http://www.oecd.org/gov/trust-in-government.htm17 Harvard University. (2015). Trust in institutions and the political process.Boston, MA: Institute of Politics. Retrieved from http://www.iop.harvard.edu/trust-institutions-and-political-processCREATING A ‘DEMOCRACY FOR EVERYONE’ 15Citizen disillusionment and disengagement – A number of studies haveidentified citizen disillusionment in and disengagement from democraticpolitics in the UK as well as elsewhere. For example, a 2013 study of HowVoters Feel in Britain by Professor Stephen Coleman at the University ofLeeds says “moments of voting are remarkably fleeting” and “inflectedby the weight of thwarted experience”18. Coleman says that “the rules ofthe political game seem too much like imposed rules and someone else’sgame” and concluded that democratic practice has deteriorated for mostcitizens to “a discourse of arid proceduralism”.19Radicalisation and extremism – At its extreme, citizen disengagement isleading to radicalisation and extremism, ranging from the rise of Far Rightpolitical parties in a number of countries to ‘foreign fighters’ from Westerncountries joining organisations such as ISIS20.Fundamentals of democracyDemocracy is fundamentally based on the concept of the will of the demos(citizens) influencing and shaping the krátos (the institutions of power andthe policies and decisions of government), with that will and influence beingexpressed and communicated through vox populi – the voice of the people.However, to be realised and effective, democracy must not only provideopportunities for citizens to freely express their voice, but those elected orappointed to govern them must pay attention and give consideration to whatcitizens say. Much emphasis is placed on voice, but democracy is aboutlistening, not only speaking.Nick Couldry has identified the importance of what he calls “voice that matters”21in society and politics and defined ‘voice that matters’ as “the implicitly linkedpractices of speaking and listening”22. Similarly, eminent communication studiesscholar Robert Craig describes communication as “speaking and listening”23.Throughout the large body of communication studies scholarship and research,communication is defined as a two-way process.Pippa Norris says of political communication: “The process operates downwardsfrom governing institutions towards citizens, horizontally in linkages amongpolitical actors, and also upwards from public opinion towards authorities”.2418 Coleman, S. (2013). How voters feel. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press,pp. 3–4.19 Coleman, S. (2013), p. 192.20 ISIS is an acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as the IslamicState of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and simply as the Islamic State (IS). Western leadersalso refer to the Islamic State as Daesh.21 Couldry, N. (2010). Why voice matters: Culture and politics after neoliberalism.London, UK and Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.22 Couldry, N. (2009). Commentary: Rethinking the politics of voice. Continuum: Journalof Media & Cultural Studies, 23(4), 579–582, p. 580.23 Craig, R. (2006). Communication as a practice. In G. Shepherd, G. St John, &T. Striphas (Eds.), Communication as … Perspectives on Theory (pp. 38–49).Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, p. 39.24 Norris, P. (2001). Political communication. In N. Smelser & P. Baltes (Eds.),International Encyclopaedia of the Social and Behavioural Sciences (pp. 11631–11640).Amsterdam, the Netherlands: Elsevier, p. 11631.16 CREATING A ‘DEMOCRACY FOR EVERYONE’The Context – Why Governments Must ActIf what flows upwards from citizens is not listened to, then the voice of citizenshas no value. It does not matter in Couldry’s terms.To paraphrase Harold Lasswell’s famous description of communication25,democratic communication and engagement are about who gets to speak andwho listens, to whom, how well, with what effect.Despite wide understanding of the fundamental principles of democracy andan emphasis in contemporary communication on audience understandingand dialogue, studies have revealed that little attention is paid to listening inmuch government and political communication. For example, in 2014 ProfessorAndrew Dobson from Keele University concluded in his book Listening forDemocracy that “honourable exceptions aside, virtually no attention has beenpaid to listening in mainstream political science”. He added that efforts toimprove democracy have mainly focussed on “getting more people to speak”26and critically observed that “much less attention has been paid to the way inwhich speech is received and processed”27.Recently, a number of democratic countries have committed to open democracyand open government. This seeks to extend the basic concept and principlesof democracy to provide citizens with ready access to all information that theyrequire and enable them to have a say in all matters that significantly affecttheir lives, rights, and responsibilities.Political and social scientists emphasise the importance of communicationbetween governments and citizens and for that communication to be meaningfuland effective, as evidenced in the following:“… meaningful communication between government and the people is notmerely a management practicality. It is a political, albeit moral, obligationthat originates from the basic covenant that exists between the governmentand the people”.2825 Harold Lasswell described what was termed ‘mass communication’ at the timeas “Who says what, in which channel, to whom, with what effect” (Lasswell, H.[1948]. The structure and function of communication in society. In L. Bryson (Ed.),The communication of ideas (pp. 37–51). New York, NY: Harper, p. 12.26 Dobson, A. (2014), Listening for democracy: Recognition, representation, reconciliation.Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, p. 36.27 Dobson, p. 17.28 Graber, D. (2003). The power of communication: Managing information in publicsector organizations. Washington, DC: CQ Press, p. 226 quoting, Viteritti, J. (1997).The environmental context of communication: Public sector organizations.In J. Garnett & A. Kouzmin (Eds.), Handbook of administrative communication(pp.79–100). New York, NY: Marcel Dekker, p. 82.CREATING A ‘DEMOCRACY FOR EVERYONE’ 17The Context – Why Governments Must ActOpen Government18 CREATING A ‘DEMOCRACY FOR EVERYONE’“… members of the public have equal rights to access comprehensiveinformation about government policies, programs and services whichaffect their entitlements, rights and obligations”.29“Fundamental to … policymaking and the design of public services is therecognition that the citizens in a democracy have both rights and duties,and that democratic governance provides opportunities for citizens toparticipate actively in shaping their world”.30The Organisational Listening Project reported here supports and extends otherstudies such as those of Stephen Coleman and Andrew Dobson by examiningthe channels and methods through which governments and political institutionslisten as well as speak to stakeholders and citizens. It presents incontrovertibleevidence of a lack of listening and makes recommendations for actions that areessential for increasing trust, democratic participation, and social equity.Why focus on UK government communication andcitizen engagement?While Stage 1 of the research informing this analysis was conducted in the USA,UK, and Australia, the second stage of intensive research was conducted in theUK for three reasons.29 Department of Finance. (2014). Guidelines on information and advertising campaignsby non-corporate Commonwealth entities. Canberra, ACT: Author, Clause 8a, p. 3.Retrieved from http://www.finance.gov.au/advertising/campaign-advertising/guidelines30 Holmes, B. (2011, July). Citizens’ engagement in policymaking and the design ofpublic services. Research Paper No. 1, Parliamentary Library Information, Analysis,Advice. Canberra, ACT: Department of Parliamentary Services, p. 1. Retrievedfrom http://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/rp1112/12rp01The Context – Why Governments Must ActCREATING A ‘DEMOCRACY FOR EVERYONE’ 19First, the UK Government Communication Service (GCS) responded positively toStage 1 of this research by inviting a presentation of the findings in the CabinetOffice, Whitehall, and offering support for Stage 2 of the research. As notedunder ‘Methodology’, GCS agreed to support the research in partnership withthe UK Department of Health as a primary site for investigation, in addition tofacilitating access to other UK government departments and agencies.Second, Stage 1 of The Organisational Listening Project found publiccommunication by the UK GCS and a number of UK government departmentsand agencies to be equal to or better than practice in other public and privatesector organisations studied in terms of commitment to evaluation, listening,and engagement. As the aim of this research was to focus on common practiceand best practice, rather than selective negative exemplars, the purposivesample selected for further detailed study was deemed appropriate.Third, as also noted under ‘Methodology’, the political environment in the UK inthe period 2014 to 2016 was characterised by increasing and unprecedentedsigns of citizen discontent with the national government and major politicalinstitutions, as evidenced in the Scotland Referendum in 2014, which narrowlymaintained UK unity, and particularly in the 2016 EU Referendum referred to asBrexit in which citizens made an historic decision to leave the European Unionafter 40 years of membership against the policies of the government.The surprise and shock that greeted the Brexit decision was a clear indicationthat UK politicians and some sections of the Government were out of touchwith the views and wishes of citizens – a concerning and dangerous situationacknowledged by the incoming Prime Minister Theresa May in a speech tolaunch her campaign for the leadership in July 2016 in which she said “there is agaping chasm between wealthy London and the rest of the country”.31

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