Citizen Participation in Public Policy Formulation

It might be the case that those who first conceived of the idea of representative democracy had in mind that when citizens elected their representatives and delegated to them the task of government they would be happy to leave them to it until the next election. For a very long time now ways and means for citizens to participate in government decision-making beyond the ballot box have been developing in Australia and other representative democracies. In nearly every area of government policy advisory and regulatory bodies with citizen appointees, public inquiries and public meetings of various kinds are commonplace.

The problem of course is that some groups of citizens tend to participate more, or are better able to participate, than others. For many the reason is largely to do with the costs and benefits of participation. If one’s livelihood or relative wealth as a farmer, doctor, lawyer or ordinary worker is affected or likely to be affected by a public policy, it makes sense to participate or to pay to belong to an advocacy organisation which will participate on your behalf. The public policy formulation process is likely to be influenced to the advantage of, or even captured by, such special interests through their advocacy organisations. However, getting citizens in general to pay up to have their interest represented through an advocacy organisation in a particular policy as consumers of a good or service or beneficiaries of a clean environment is much harder. The benefits of participation are often seen to fall well below the costs. This is largely due to the “collective action problem” (Mancur Olson, 1965). So, where public policy should reflect a diffuse public or consumer interest, members of the community at large will, not unreasonably, question why they should devote a lot of time and energy with everyone else “free riding” on their efforts.

A good example is industry and trade policy. In many countries this policy area has often been heavily influenced by both major employer and employee groups, at the expense of the economy and citizens as consumers in general. In Australia this was perhaps at its zenith during the 60s – the Menzies years. There has been progress in this area of public policy, but more is yet to be achieved.

It is important to note that special interest groups range from strong and influential producer groups to weak producer groups such as perhaps some small business sector groups and small trade unions. It is also important to note that there are many consumer special interests. Some of these are able to organise for advocacy and some of these groups have sufficient strength to have an impact on public policy (examples are some particular health consumer groups). However, most are weak public policy actors. There are also the weak special interest voices of people living in disadvantage for whom organising themselves for advocacy is totally impractical.

A school of public policy thought emerged in the late seventies and eighties that said that the best thing was for governments to determine the public interest and the needs of special interests entirely by themselves, isolated from all interest groups. But anyone who has observed the policy process disinterestedly to any great extent knows that this is quite impossible. In most areas policy cannot be made without knowledge of the technical and economic possibilities and practicalities and this can rarely be determined with any accuracy without consulting the relevant producers or providers of the goods or services in question. Thus the door is opened and inevitably what policy advisers hear in such consultations is not entirely objective, factual information unmodified by the interests of the special interest groups involved.

Of course many public policy practitioners see themselves as ordinary citizens and quite able to work out the public or consumer interest and bring the required balance to a policy decision. This is not easy, though, if the voices of the strong interests are heard more often and if, as is often the case, they are saying that they have worked out what is best for the citizenry. It makes it even harder when the voices are heard over complimentary drinks at the complimentary ballet or rugby match or some similar occasion.

In today’s world the problem is compounded with the trend toward globalisation of public policy. Members of national delegations to international forums are rather more likely to find themselves in the aeroplane in business class, or in the bars of the hotels with the lobbyists of strong special interests than the advocates of weak special interests and of the public or consumer interest. The latter are exerting some influence outside the barriers around these forums, but this does not seem to be the way to develop measured public policy.

The Coombs Royal Commission into Australian Government Administration way back in 1975 understood the problem of getting the voice of consumers and other weak and diffuse voices into the policy formulation process. It saw the need for a continuing programme for disbursement of funds to appropriate advocacy organisations. Australian governments, of both complexions have provided such funds, but not as consistently as needed to ensure these voices are heard when they need to be heard. The Consumers’ Federation of Australia has, for example, failed to regain government funding since it’s funding was withdrawn by the Howard Government. Public interest and consumer groups are now even under threat of losing their tax deductibility status.

Also, it has been the case that governments have generally accepted that wherever there are special producer interest representatives in advisory or regulatory bodies these should be balanced with public and weak special interest representatives as appropriate. The value in terms of knowledge and perspectives public and weak special interest representatives bring is usually recognised with the payment of appropriate fees, but this is by no means universal. Moreover, it is problematical that producer representatives on such bodies can call on support from well-resourced producer organisations while public interest and consumer representatives are often flying solo.

It is noteworthy that in the USA, where substantial funds are available from the many large private foundations (scarce in Australia and many other countries) observers of the public policy process nevertheless see the need for public funding of public and weak special interest and consumer organisations. William Gormley (1991), one such observer, says: “Without such support, citizens must often choose between passive acquiescence and hysterical appeals to the mass media for publicity. With government support, citizens can sharpen their own understanding of complex issues before they make a case to the bureaucracy. The playing field (between producer and consumer interests) may not be equalized, but it does become more equal.”

One of the many examples of support for these organisations resulting in public policy improvements in Australia is the contribution the publicly funded consumers’ federation made to trade policy reform during the eighties.

The benefit of seeking out, encouraging and structuring public and weak special interest and consumer participation in government decision making and properly resourcing it from the public purse far outweighs the cost.

Originally published in the Public Sector Informant