There is much current debate about the extent to which people feel disconnected from the decisions that impact on their lives. This can be disempowering at best and infuriating at worst, a silent scream that can’t be heard because no-one’s listening. This feeling is not the sole preserve of those who use a range of public services or who are perhaps less able to stand up for their own interests or who are fighting multiple disadvantages in their own lives and communities. The breadth of issues from which this feeling of being ‘done to’ and not heard is pervasive across society and arises in many different domains.
The owners of houses behind my parents house got together to sell the bottom of their extensive gardens to developers for infill housing. The original planning application was challenged by the homeowners surrounding the site whose properties would now be overlooked by the new houses, being on highter ground, but it was passed with a requirement that one of the new houses was ‘affordable’. The development was recently completed but with no affordable housing provided. The developers submitted a variation to the original planning application and that was passed, making the development legal. My parents and their neighbours – all educated, articulate people – are left feeling disempowered and frustrated, feeling that the system doesn’t enable them to have a voice and that their voice is not important. Such processes favour business, development and growth and do not adequately reconcile this with community views.
Driving down the motorway and suddenly the signs are flashing 40 mph. Yet the road remains pretty clear, conditions fair. Why do I need to virtually halve my speed? The power of social norms kick in as no-one else is slowing down. Do I really have to slow down? How difficult would it be to provide an explanation on the big gantry’s that stretch over our motorways? Accident in one mile. Please slow down to improve traffic flow and get home quicker. It wouldn’t take much. How you help people get to the desired result is critically important.
The location of a controversial waste incinerator site was moved from one community, after locals were vociferous in their opposition, to another. In so doing the second community felt – of course – as though they were second-best, almost literally having rubbish dumped on them. One community was too good to have the incinerator, the second evidently wasn’t. The short version of the story is that after a period of years and a cost to the taxpayer of millions neither went ahead. Yet if people had been engaged in the debate from the start, from a conversation about how to handle the county’s waste, through reduction and recycling first, through to a debate about options and, finally, locations, the decision might have still been that the second community was the best location, but the process could have taken residents on the journey together with the ultimate decision-makers. Top down bureaucratic management is never going to resolve this.
If a decision-making process is seen to be fair, transparent and inclusive, whether on the macro-scale of an incinerator or the micro-scale of a small housing development or motorway-driving, people can more easily understand the outcome and live with the decision. But where that decision is imposed on people, of course they react; few people like to be told what to do. Process matters. More, perhaps, than the outcomes. If the process is seen as a fair journey, people are more likely to live with the outcome.