Just one example: The Australian Capital Territory’s Government was considering the way new technologies and other reforms could be employed by Canberra’s taxi fleet; inevitably it launched a public consultation process. People could access a discussion paper online and send in their comments for a set period of time.
Nothing wrong with that, you might say; good to involve people who might use taxis; an example of government keeping in touch with those who elected it.
I beg to differ and this is why.
Firstly, you will not get feedback from a representative group of taxi users. You will get feedback from the few who happen to see the news article and are motivated to make a reply.
These are often people who have a particular barrow to push. They want a taxi-rank a convenient walk from their home; they want a noisy taxi rank moved from outside their flats to somewhere else – anywhere as long as it does not annoy them; they want guarantees that taxis will arrive within 10 minutes of them calling one 24/7 etc.
Secondly I believe that governments are elected to govern and should not be running back to the electorate every time they have to make a decision. They are ones who have all the facts at their disposal (or should have); they are the ones who have the resources to employ expert advice, or to study the results of similar initiatives elsewhere and to learn from mistakes made.
Governments have become timid, afraid of making an unpopular decision that will affect their chances of getting re-elected next time round. But hard decisions have to be made and should not, indeed could not, be left to the electorate who, in the most general sense, would prefer a world where there were fewer taxes and more services.
Squaring that circle is what governments have to do, even if it sometimes means offending people who may, or may not have voted for them. It’s what democracy is all about.
Finally, you do not always get honest answers from those consulted — and here I might recall a public consultation that was done many years ago in the United Kingdom, not by a government, but by the International Publishing Corporation over the launch a new national newspaper.
IPC was a part owner of the Daily Herald, a staunchly leftist trade union-backed publication that was losing serious money. IPC decided to have a relaunch with a new name geared to the aspiring young middle class (the Yuppies of today).
It employed market researchers who came back with the finding that this cohort wanted a “more intelligent and thoughtful” newspaper — and that was how the Sun appeared in 1964 — and quickly began to sink.
The Sun struggled on for a few years, losing circulation at an even greater rate than the Herald, until IPC sold it to Rupert Murdoch who doubled, then tripled its readership on a solid diet topless models, celebrity scandal and sport.
As columnist Matthew Engels later remarked: “People aren’t going to tell complete strangers with clipboards they want to see breasts on Page Three.”