Policy and Politics: How not to conduct a consultation – and why asking the public is not always such a great idea

Policy and Politics: How not to conduct a consultation – and why asking the public is not always such a great idea

Agnes Batory

This section of Discover Society is provided in collaboration with the journal, Policy and Politics. It is curated by Sarah Brown.

Involving people in policy-making is generally a good thing. Policy-makers themselves often pay lip-service to the importance of giving citizens a say. In the academic literature, participatory governance has been, with some exaggeration, almost universally hailed as a panacea to all ills in Western democracies. In particular, it is advocated as a way to remedy the alienation of voters from politicians who seem to be oblivious to the concerns of the common man and woman, with an ensuing decline in public trust in government.

Representation by political parties is ridden with problems, so the argument goes, and in any case it is overly focused on the act of voting in elections – a one-off event once every few years which limits citizens’ ability to control the policy agenda. On the other hand, various forms of public participation are expected to educate citizens, help develop a civic culture, and boost the legitimacy of decision-making. Consequently, practices to ensure that citizens can provide direct input into policy-making are to be welcomed on both pragmatic and normative grounds.

I do not disagree with these generally positive expectations. However, the main objective of my recent article in Policy and Politics, co-authored with Sara Svensson, is to inject a dose of healthy scepticism into the debate. Or, more precisely, to show that there are circumstances in which public consultations will achieve anything but greater legitimacy and better policy-outcomes. We do this partly by discussing the more questionable assumptions in the participatory governance literature, and partly by examining a recent, glaring example of the misuse, and abuse, of popular input.

Regarding the former, one key assumption we want to challenge is that, if participatory arrangements are advocated by policy-makers, it is for the sake of altruistic objectives (e.g., giving voice to constituents or improving public services). We would argue that, more often than not, politicians call for public input in order to achieve purely partisan goals such as claiming ownership of a popular cause, diverting attention from trouble brewing elsewhere, or trying to remove a divisive issue from internal party debate. Moreover, participation enthusiasts often seem to forget that involving citizens is not only advocated by ‘the good guys’, but also by political actors whose main claim (but not actual practice) is to follow the ‘will of the people’, i.e., populists.

Given the ample supply of successful populist parties in contemporary politics, it is not difficult to illustrate these points. The election of Donald Trump in the US, and, in Europe, Brexit in the UK, and the coming to power of Syriza in Greece, Law and Justice in Poland and the Five Star Movement-League coalition in Italy showed populism to be, in some countries, a dominant political force. Indeed. in many cases it is seen hand in hand with a declared dedication to allowing ‘the people’ (members, constituents, etc.) to express their opinion without the corruption of the regular political process. This can take the form of referendums, but also more ‘modern’ instruments such as televotes or online platforms for comments and votes, such as those operated by Italy’s Five Star Movement for its members.

However, our main case study is Hungary. Viktor Orban’s national consultations are probably the most wide-scale consultative exercises in contemporary Europe. The Orban government repeatedly sent questionnaires to every household in the country via some 8 million copies, allegedly to channel public preferences into decision-making on issues, from the principles of the constitution to unemployment, or how migration should be handled by the EU. Orban explicitly justified the consultations as a meaningful way to involve people in policy-making.

However, already the official titles of some of the more outlandish (not to say scaremongering) consultations, such as the ‘Let’s stop Brussels’ National Consultation, or the ‘National Consultation on the Soros Plan’, cast doubt on the actual intentions behind the exercises. The latter, probably the most notorious, contained seven questions about the alleged activities of Hungarian-born American financier and philanthropist George Soros – claimed by government spokesmen to involve the promotion of illegal migration – and invited respondents to indicate whether they supported this or that part of ‘the plan’ or not.

The government claimed that over 2 million people filled in the questionnaire, although, in the absence of a public archive, no independent actor was able to verify these results. In sum, to mention just the most important shortcomings, the weakness of procedural guarantees and bias in the framing of questions marked out the consultations as a tool of political manipulation and propaganda rather than a genuine instrument for participation.

At this point, many would object that Orban’s consultations are an extreme example, and they would be right. Thus, our conclusions are not to recommend avoiding the use of consultative and participatory instruments. Clearly, they do have an important role when the conditions are right – but only then. We aim to help to decide when that is by proposing five assessment criteria in the paper:

  • posing questions that allow for citizens’ autonomous choice;
  • strong procedural guarantees to ensure a balanced debate and verifiable outcomes;
  • the result to at least have the potential to settle actual policy;
  • cost-effectiveness, and;
  • political communication that is truthful about the aims and consequences of the vote.

Hungary’s national consultations – organised by a populist government – obviously fail these tests on all points; many other consultations would fail a couple; and others none. Only in the latter cases should they be seen as practices boosting legitimacy and efficiency.

While we differentiate between referendums and consultations in the article, at least one other prominent example comes to mind, which shall remain nameless. Let’s apply our five tests: ask an inappropriate question to under-informed,  or misinformed, citizens, fail to ensure a healthy public debate, leave all policy options open, waste public resources, and finally use the ‘popular will’ as an excuse. Sound familiar?


Agnes Batory is a Professor in the Central European University’s School of Public Policy and a Research Fellow of the Center for Policy Studies.