• "If people feel they belong and are really listened to, they become more engaged & hopeful for the future" - @Victoriazubuike #PeoplesPanel
  • Power to the people: what the #PeoplesPanel told us about how to make government more human
  • Can government learn from fudge shop sales? @_Amy_Noonan recaps the first meeting of our #PeoplesPanel

At CPI, we care most about helping governments to improve outcomes for citizens. This is why we’re always striving to shed light on the issues that really matter to people. Not just through our research, but by listening to people who have different backgrounds and perspectives on life.

Earlier this year, building on our Finding Legitimacy listening project, we formed CPI’s People’s Panel. We put a call out for panellists based in the UK who have a passion for representing, understanding and caring for people who depend on public services and governments, and we were blown away by the enthusiasm of the applications we received.

Selecting the panellists was no easy task, but we were delighted to bring together such an interesting and dedicated group – ten people from various walks of life, who really care about helping government achieve better outcomes.

Last month, we held our first meeting here in London and the theme was human government: how to listen and show compassion for society’s most vulnerable, while governing for the whole. We asked our panellists for their thoughts on the biggest issues facing public services today, whether we need to rethink where power lies, and if they – as citizens – felt that their voices were being heard.

Our panellists will be blogging too, and we hope that sharing these reflections will provide all of us with fresh insights into our own work.

Here are the five key takeaways from the first gathering of the People’s Panel.

1. Recognise the importance of identity and belonging

Identity and a sense of belonging, to your community and your country, were two of the most consistent themes to come out of our conversation. Governments must acknowledge and address the fact that they often don’t look or sound like the people they’re supposed to represent.

Mandip Sahota, a former civil servant now working for societal change, recounted a tale of her first day at a large government department in London. She walked into the grand building and immediately felt a mixture of pride, awe and fear. She couldn’t see anyone who looked like her. As someone from the North of England, she didn’t hear anyone who sounded like her. And she even questioned whether she belonged there at all.

She went on to spend a number of years working in the department and is now glad she found it so challenging at the start. It made her confront her own stereotypes about a “typical” diplomat and ask why there weren’t more people like her in the corridors of power. Things are changing slowly and, during the employability workshops she leads in Yorkshire, she encourages more young people to join the civil service.  

The inequality and lack of diversity that she observed extends to the top companies and top universities, too. Blind CVs and work experience are only part of the solution. To make sure people feel included, we need cultural and structural change.

Victoria Azubuike is a final year student at Warwick University and founder of the Us Programme, a project to help educate and inspire young women and girls, mainly from disadvantaged backgrounds. Victoria spoke about their detachment from government, which she attributes to its failure to represent young people and talk to them in a way that makes sense.

She contrasted this with the young girls who are part of the Us Programme, who are so engaged and motivated by the programme’s mission. It’s not that they don’t care about issues of government, the difference is that they can relate to Victoria and she can represent their views. The girls really trust her to have their best interests at heart. 

If people feel they belong and are really listened to, they become more engaged and hopeful for the future.

2. Take a hard look at incentives for government and the public sector

A growing distrust of government, and a lack of role models within it, were also front of mind for this group. There was a feeling that politicians tend to act out of self-interest, incentivised by a need to look good. We heard of a shift away from substance and a growing focus on marketing and PR: ministers perform as the marketing front of the ministry, while unelected civil servants run the show behind closed doors.

Our panellists have the sense that politicians tell people what they think they want to hear, rather than the truth. If government and politicians are to build trusted relationships with people, they should be prepared to admit when they are wrong. Too often, pride gets in the way. But saying sorry when you have made a mistake goes a long way to build bridges and respect.

There was also a discussion about the length of electoral cycles and the incentives that these create – how can governments tackle complex social issues with long time horizons when most electoral cycles require them to deliver impact within much shorter time frames?

John Bretherton, a retired civil servant, said that often policy ideas looked good but had no grip on reality, like the introduction of Universal Credit, where claimants had been made to wait up to six weeks for their money. Overall, government needs to look beyond five-year electoral terms – particularly where much-needed infrastructure projects are concerned – if future generations are to benefit.

The difficulty with incentives is a problem faced by public services, too. The way services gather around a vulnerable child or patient works well, but this is often because of a fear something will fall through the cracks and blame will result. There is a lack of time to help people in the right way for the long term. There need to be more people and more joined-up services there to help before a blame game starts.

3. Speak a language that people understand

Matters of government are complex and difficult to understand. We’re not taught how to navigate government policy or how to understand tax, for example, and the language of government can be alienating and confusing.

Patch Hyde owns a fudge shop in London’s Greenwich Market. He told us how important it is for government to find the right dialogue to have with people “to make things land.” This is how connections and understanding can be built. He gave the example of people who don’t speak English coming into his shop to buy fudge.

He used to explain to these visitors how the fudge should be eaten “at room temperature,” but this phrase would be met by blank faces. He finally came to realise that the word “ambient” seemed to be common to many languages and nationalities and communicated the right message. They got it, and now ambient is the word he uses.

The themes that Patch touched on relate to the need for more empathy, one of five legitimacy behaviours that we identified as being essential if we are to succeed in strengthening legitimacy, and a thread that ran through many of the evening’s discussions.

We heard from Vera Kobalia, who now lives in Vancouver, about the importance of choosing the right language as part of the reconciliation work in Canada, another area of work that CPI has been examining. The Canadian government has succeeded in choosing the right language and clearly communicating its intention to converse openly and honestly about mistakes from the past.

More needs to be done to make service users and providers aware of new policies that affect them. Government needs to communicate what’s available to people, what’s expected of them, and how different policies affect vulnerable people.

If governments can articulate a clear vision to people, this also helps to build trust. At the moment, particularly in the current political climate in the UK, it’s not clear what the government’s priorities are or what reforms politicians are wanting to see in the world. This needs to change.

4. Give serious thought to citizen empowerment

We’ve been thinking a lot at CPI about whether a rethink of traditional power dynamics in government and public services is required.

We heard two contrasting statements about the potential of such a power shift: an excitement about enabling local decision-makers to reach decisions based on their understanding of local needs, tempered by a concern over accountability, corruption and the readiness of institutions and individuals to assume excessive powers.

Panellists agreed that whilst there are potential merits in governments giving residents, local authority leaders, and people working at the frontline more of a say in decisions that affect them in their communities and jobs, any shift in power must be meaningful. Governments shouldn’t assume that residents care about where the power sits – mostly, they think in terms of whether a service works for them or whether they have easy access to healthcare, not about how power is distributed.

There was some agreement that the reality of existing accountability structures in the UK government has led to a culture of targets, which can shift the individual’s personal accountability from their own area of interest to an external monitoring system. This system incorporates little understanding of the context and sometimes even little understanding of the reality of the work. In turn, this shift can be bad for people’s health and well-being, resulting in high rates of stress and workplace absenteeism.

Accountability was also a fear in more devolved power structures. Katie Martin from Citizens Advice asked who takes responsibility – and is accountable for – standards and consistency across postcodes.

Panellists were open to the idea of trialling new forms of decision-making, such as citizens’ juries, but they all agreed that this power shift is something that requires careful thought.

5. Give citizens a stronger voice

We asked panellists to say to what extent they feel they have a voice. Certain panellists felt that, as individuals, they couldn’t make themselves heard at all. There was a sense that they needed to be part of an organisation or a movement in order to have a voice.

Victoria said that coming from a disadvantaged background forced her to fight for her place at the table, which is why she joined her local youth council as a teenager. The chance to be heard was not something that just happened, it’s something she really had to fight for.

Panellists also felt that many voices together were stronger. Government has a role to play in providing an opportunity for those voices to join in meaningfully. Recent football tournaments have shown how to unify the nation, as with Wales in the 2016 Euros and England in the 2018 World Cup. In the current climate, we need this sense of shared purpose more than ever.

The People’s Panel told us that citizens and politicians need to speak the same language in order to hold transparent and honest debates about policy. We should be more thoughtful about the potential in shifting power from government to citizens, with more policies created and enacted at a local level. Above all, people need to see a genuine reflection of themselves in their local and national governments, so they can fully identify with the community and country they live in.

This was the first of four CPI People’s Panel meetings planned for 2019. We are holding these meetings to ensure that our work and research is informed by and resonates with people who have different relationships with government. We’ve started this discussion here in the UK, but are very interested in people’s experiences from around the world. For any comments or questions, get in touch with Amy at amy@centreforpublicimpact.org.