On public consultations and online polls

Why democratic governments must consult, but must neither be obliged to nor bound by the results

Aparajita Ray, Senior Correspondent (Urban Infrastructure) of Times of India asked me to comment on public consultation and opinion polls in the context of the Steel Flyover controversy in Bangalore. Here are the questions and answer.

Q. Recently a senior government official in Karnataka admitted that there are no SOPs in the system to take public consensus into consideration while announcing or executing projects. Is this not the right time to charter a protocol in the government on the need and how to hold public consultation as a procedural obligation?

Q. What should the basic norms/processes be like, in setting a standard for public consultation? What are the legal bindings, if any, on government to take public consent.

Q. In times of Digital India, how should should government hold public consultation that is transparent and will have maximum reach? BDA created fake twitter accounts and bots to claim it got 299 responses in 5 days of which 73% voted for the steel flyover and that gives the government an upper hand so far.

Q. What are the global examples that come to your mind and are there any guiding principles in public policy making on this subject in particularly? I have heard, in UK even before releasing a postal stamp, public consensus is taken.

Q. Most importantly, what do you think citizens need to have or must do to let themselves be heard, each time when the government thrusts upon them a decision like the steel flyover. How can citizens engage with governments or should there be a system in place as to how they can do it.

My response:
Governments across the world have used forms of public consultation on policy issues. In the Britain and countries that share its parliamentary system, there is a tradition of publishing white papers (stating the government’s position) and green papers (for public discussion). Now, in many cases, the decision to issue green papers is a matter of tradition, more than a statutory requirement.

It is necessary for governments to retain the discretion on when to go for public consultation. However, in the modern, hyperconnected world, it makes good sense for the government to engage in public consultation on important policy changes, design of buildings and infrastructure projects, location of power stations, airports etc. This is not to say that they must be obliged to engage in public consultations, rather, that they must have very strong moral and political incentives to do so.

Ideally, for large infrastructure projects like the steel flyover, a two stage public consultation would be appropriate. In the first stage, the government would invite industry and citizens to propose alternatives to solve a particular problem (in this case, decongestion of the airport road). This would allow the government to benefit from the diversity of expertise in the community. After it has shortlisted the option, or selected one of them, it can put it up for further consultation and refinement. It is important to include both cost & benefit estimates in the consultation, so that people can take a balanced view.

This said, ultimately, the government must have the discretion to make the decision. As Brexit has shown, doing what the majority wants does not necessarily benefit the public interest. If it comes to that, the government has the legitimate authority to decide against the most popular choice. It might have to incur political costs of doing this, but a constitutional government’s authority must be upheld.

Internet voting, especially online polls, are plagued with shortcomings: we do not know who is the electorate, how they vote and what is the credibility of the process. Given that social media trends are now almost always manipulated, we should treat twitter and facebook polls with a pinch of salt. Let’s not forget that a vast number of our citizens are not online, and are ‘disenfranchised’ from such counts of public opinion.