December 29, 2006

People's Panels- what kind of democracy

Chris Dillow gives a cautious welcome to the idea of People's Panels summoned together from what I can glean to perform an advisory function for ministers. He is right to give the idea a single cheer. There are numerous problems- many of which he outlines and which I don't want to rehearse again here. One interesting issue is the way that such a panel will be formed.

One of the interesting things about these groups is the way that they parallel the reliance upon focus groups of new Labour electioneering. Wonderfully satirised at times by the Thick of it which demonstrated how ministers select the conclusions they wish for from the focus group and run by the intellectually challenged Lord Gould, the logic behind the focus group was that a group of individuals drawn to represent various groups within a population could in a small group present a simulcram of the whole population- thus they provided a tool for testing arguments, policies and ways of thinking upon the electorate. Frank Luntz has done programs for the BBC using this technique to test potential leaders of Tory and Labour parties before voters. There are problems in my view with this method- how statistically significant a sample of 30 is for testing a population of 60 million has yet to be proved conclusively to me.

The wider problem though is that the voice of the focus group or people's panel can quite easily acquire a spurious legitimacy- just because a group of thirty represents the people in terms of ethnicity or sex does not mean that it represents the people's views. Diverse does not neccessarily mean democratic, representative does not mean representatives. There is a difficulty here of rhetorical slippage especially when the people chosen for the panel are chosen- the ancient Athenian manner of choosing by lot endorsed comically by G.K.Chesterton in A Napoleon of Notting Hill is much more democratic because its less subject to abuse and less likely to screen by an (even unacknowledged) bias towards one opinion or another. Even so the error rate in representing the diversity of view within the community would be large.

The People's Panel deserves a single cheer- opening up the processes of politics and bringing in non-elite citizens (ie non-lawyers, lobbyists, Parliamentarians etc) to question some of the established pieties of political discussion. But it should not be mistaken for a representative institution in the sense that Parliament is, panels that aren't elected are not neccessarily democratic. They give all the advantages of a diverse voice- ie another voice which can force elected politicians to reevaluate unthought through assumptions- but they must not be granted equivalent actual or more likely rhetorical force to the decision taken by an elected politician.

I've clarified this slightly in the comments below- City UnSlicker has given his very cynical and clear point of view over at his blog- there is a lot to what he says. I suppose what I've done above is tried to address the idea on its own terms- what it could contribute if used properly. City Unslicker on the other hand puts it in the context of a very cynical and media savvy government so is less willing to credit it with any merit.


CityUnslicker said...

No it is a stupid idea and a complete cop out. See my piece on my blog.

They won't do it anyway, they never do. NuLab announces and then gets on and announces something else. All is forgotten in the worship of the Media grid

Gracchi said...

Yeah I think they won't do it either and also I don't think they'd use it for a diverse voice- this government doesn't like analysis of any form especially on policy. I suppose this post is about the misuse of the idea to suggest that somehow it would be more democratic- because it wouldn't be elected groups it couldn't be democratic. Sorry sometimes I get so tangled up in my own subtlety that I lose the focus of the piece. Hope the clarification helped.