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I think it’s important to keep in mind two key things about the Power Inquiry. Firstly, it was set up as an independent public inquiry led by a Commission of ten people. Secondly, its aim was to develop concrete recommendations designed to re-engage people with democratic politics or, maybe more accurately, re-engage democratic politics with people. Given that this was its structure and remit, Power inevitably had top-down elements to its process and inevitably made recommendations about how those in power should change our democratic institutions to encourage engagement. There is, of course, a case for a much flatter type of process looking at “everyday democracy” but this would have been a very different animal with different outcomes. I don’t think the existence of one necessarily rules out the existence of the other.

Having said that Power was not your bog standard public inquiry which in David’s phrase amounts to “Just Another Consultation Exercise” (JACE). Here are just three points as to why this is the case.

1. The Commission deliberately did not include the usual suspects – no MPs, judges, academics. It was deliberately made-up of independently-minded people from a variety of backgrounds some with party allegiances, some with none.
2. The Inquiry was always designed to be about engaging with as many people as possible rather than just experts and interested parties. Hence we launched a series of initiatives to encourage evidence from people who would not normally consider submitting to a public inquiry. This is why we ended-up with over 1,500 submissions from members of the public.
3. The ideas developed by the Commission during its deliberative phase were “tested” through a randomly-selected citizens panel based in Newcastle-Gateshead and our ‘Democracy Dinners’ project. Parts of the Commission’s conclusions were discussed with some people who took part in the earlier evidence-gathering phase but it was clear that revealing the whole report for consultation prior to the official launch date would have severely weakened its impact. This was undoubtedly the right approach, given the great media interest and the way the report has kick-started a national debate about democratic change. This is why we have organised a free conference for May to allow the wider public debate on the report which was not possible in the later stages of the inquiry.

The most important factor though - and this is why I think David’s characterisation of Power as JACE is unfair - is that most consultations fail because they are tick-box exercises designed to secure legitimacy for a decision that has already been taken or which will not be based on anything the participants in the consultation process suggest. The Power Commission really did come to this process without any firm views on the causes and solutions to the problem of disengagement. Their views emerged gradually out of what they heard both from experts, interested parties and the wider public. To take just one small example, the Commission vice-chair – Ferdinand Mount – came to the process an opponent of electoral reform and left a firm supporter because of the evidence he heard and saw. Power was not perfect but it was different and it certainly was much more than just another consultation exercise.

Adam Lent
Research Director
The Power Inquiry

Adam - thanks
The opinion-gathering and analysis was clearly terrific, as I sensed from the report. My question remains ... how did the recommendations for action (almost entirely about electorial reform) emerge from the analysis of the problem (much wider disaffection with, and mistrust of, the powers that be). If the recommendations were developed by a group of electoral reformers and then offered to testers and the rest of us it is, in my view, consultation. That is, information power-holders offer the rest a limited choice of options rather than a co-creation exercise. It's a pretty traditional way of doing things and doesn't in my view justify branding as Power to the People.

I went to the 'Power to the People' conference yesterday (6th May). I came away broadly with the same opinion as this author. i.e. I was inspired by the findings of the report but it was also very obvious that nothing would come of it.

For example, I attended the direct democracy breakout session. I could tell just by looking around the room that my fellow delegates weren't the types that would be looking for change. For example, there were a row of elderly women who cheered everything that Chris Huhne (the biggest critic of direct democracy) said, and there were a lot of suits everywhere. A number of the questions were of a single issue nature e.g. 1 guy spoke against Europe, another guy went on about his forum in Devon, Charter 88 were there to ask for support for their Sustainable Communities bill and Chris Huhne's consituent party (the old ladies) included 1 frail old dear who'd clearly lost her marbles.

Do Turkeys vote for Christmas? Interestingly, the Tory MP who spoke, Douglas Carswell was promoting a very radical reform of parliament, and actually gave the impression that he wanted to give power to the people . He did admit he'd only been there a year, however. One wonders if he'll have the same agenda once he's been given a ministerial post.

Saira Khan (she of the Apprentice) gave an interesting question to David Cameron about how he'd inspire ordinary people to vote, and Emma B (broadcaster) asked how we could trust him. DC didn't answer either question but I heard lots of approving comments from old ladies on the way out as to what a nice chap he was.

I didn't go to the event on the 6th May. I was booked to go, but when I got the agenda I realised it was the same old tired formula of speakers and Q&A sessions. I thought (naively) that the conference designers may have been inspired during their inquiry to use different (more effective?) methods of engagement. They chose not to and alienated me and several of my peers.

Awesome blog. Thanks!

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