News and Comment

The collective action problem: are micro responses an acceptable solution? Part Two

Tuesday 5 November 2013


In the second of a two-part series, Project Manager David Hughes, from OPM’s sister organisation Dialogue by Design, considers ‘the collective action problem’ in relation to consultations.

Can it be too easy to respond to a consultation?

Recently I suggested that postcards and campaign responses to consultations play an important role in overcoming the collective action problem, however I’d now like to pose an additional question: can it ever be too easy to take part in a consultation?

At first glance this is quite a surprising question to ask, a lot of the work that we do here at DbyD is ensuring that there are no obstacles to participation. However with vast numbers of postcards being submitted to large infrastructure consultations some people have been suggesting that less weight should be given to these responses in the decision making process.

Of course various ways of responding to a consultation are of course going to vary in terms of the amount of time and effort needed. Whilst one respondent may painstakingly hand write a large document, another may simply add their contact details to a prewritten campaign letter or post card.

However concerns arise; do these people fully understand how their response is going to be used? Are these people fully versed in subject matter and materials available to them? Are they being cajoled by neighbours or friends? Of course these questions can be asked of anyone responding to a consultation regardless of the length of their response, yet due to the brief nature of posting a postcard, the suspicion here will always be stronger.

To answer this question it can be useful to think about the theoretical underpinnings of public participation in policy making.

The first is that participation in decision making can be seen as an extension of the democratic process. When a decision is being made that can directly impact upon someone’s life one might argue that they have a right not only to make their voice heard but to have their concerns and their point of view considered by policy makers.

The second rational for public participation is that it can lead to better, more informed policy. By undergoing a consultation process, decision makers are able to gather further evidence such as technical information or areas of concern that had not previously been considered, on which to base their decision. If more informed policy making is the goal then it is the issues that have been raised and not that numbers of response that are important, and weighting becomes irrelevant.

Of course no project falls neatly into one of these categories. You would do well to find a project which clearly states one stance over the other, but it is useful to keep in mind these somewhat conflicting goals when deciding how to deal with an ever increasing range of response methods.