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Newsletter, April 2006

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Should activists be held accountable?

An interesting poll was held at a conference in Bristol on 10 March. The delegates were posed the proposition “Activists should be held accountable”, and over half of them agreed. The conference, entitled “Activists and Authorities in the 21st Century: Can councils and community activists work together effectively?” was composed of a roughly 50:50 split of public sector employees and people describing themselves as “activists”, so this was a rather surprising result.

The need for authorities to be accountable is a given, but should we be considering the accountability of activists and campaigners? Is it desirable? Does it even make sense if we are unclear who they should be accountable to?

Reasons against

There are good reasons for not holding activists to account to the same degree as authorities: it is not as clear to whom they should account; they don’t represent the community as a whole in the same way as do employees and elected representatives of government; and we value their voices as members of minority groups and don’t want to put obstacles in the way of their participation.

At the Bristol conference the view of the activist as a member of a disenfranchised minority was voiced by many people. In one presentation, activists were portrayed – jokingly – as oppressed freedom fighters, complete with a powerpoint picture of Che Guevara! In the more prosaic language of local democracy these people are members of the “hard-to-reach” groups. The underlying implication seems to be that their views must be valuable and legitimate simply because they are outside mainstream opinion.

The other side of the picture

But we think this idealistic view of the activist masks another side of the picture which is important if we are to manage public engagement in a truly representative way. Towards the end of the conference Steven Clift gave out another interesting statistic: in the US, he estimates that about 80% of all activist websites have Not In My Back Yard as their agenda. These are rarely organised by hard-to-reach groups, in fact they tend to be run by white, affluent, middle-class people who are very much part of the mainstream.

We notice two uncomfortable facts associated with these groups. Activism of this kind costs authorities a great deal of money, as at least 80% of the communication volume in a consultation can be generated by a single campaigning group of this type. Secondly and more disturbingly, people tend to trust the opinions of neighbours, family and friends more than those of an institution or authority when making up their minds about controversial issues. Take the MMR issue as an example. They tend to defer any necessary in-depth investigation into complicated subjects (or reading the consultation document in full) to others they trust, simply because they are NOT associated with an authority or institution, whether or not these people have the knowledge or qualifications to act on their behalf.

As a result of incorrect or inaccurate information being passed around a community in this way, decisions can be swayed and community cohesion damaged. In this case is it still right to say that activists should not be accountable to anyone? The responsibilities of local elected members are backed up by their accountability to the electorate. But action groups, while claiming citizen support, are in fact accountable to no one. Is this right?

Practical solutions

We'll come back to that big question but in the meantime how do we deal with this in practice? One of the most basic ways to avoid accountability is to be anonymous. That is why we encourage our clients to use methods that make responses public and where respondents’ real names can be seen by others. We think that in developed countries, with very few exceptions (views on crime, particularly sensitive issues like domestic violence etc), anonymous contributions are intrinsically less valuable than ones that are signed because their owners are not prepared to be visible.

But our answer to the stronger question of whether it is right for action groups to be left relatively unaccountable, is that, on balance, we believe it is right. Apart from discouraging anonymity, we should not institutionalise accountability on the respondents’ side or try to legislate for it because we think that would push the genuinely disenfranchised even further from the mainstream. The cost of encouraging real minority views is dealing with the NIMBYs, and we think that is a reasonable price to pay.

Maybe the biggest challenge is to work out how people can be encouraged to genuinely engage as individuals rather than deferring to the views of campaigners.


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