6.5.3  Consultative Governance

(The latest version of this page is at Pattern Descriptions.  An archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition02/653.htm)

If a government is to do the best for its people it has to know what they want.  Different groups of people in a society can be consulted about their concerns and priorities in relation to a particular issue, to overcome the limitations of politicians as representatives (6.5.1).

Technology has now made direct consultation easier, for issues which are sufficiently straightforward to be resolved by a voting process.  Nowadays it is possible for a government to conduct opinion surveys more easily than ever before, for example by using the Internet, telephone interviews, or phone-in voting in conjunction with a television programme. 

For more complex issues, people need to be able to see that their different interests are being adequately represented in political bargaining – even if they are neither informed nor interested in all the details.  People cannot be fully informed on every issue, but this does not mean that their views should be disregarded.  By delegating their consultation rights on a particular issue to a representative of an interest group to which they have declared an allegiance, their views can be taken into account.  It is inappropriate to suggest that lack of particular expertise should be a reason for preventing some people from voting as, for example, was argued by Jason Brennan in an article entitled The Right to a Competent Electorate:

“In this paper, I argue that the practice of unrestricted, universal suffrage is unjust.  Citizens have a right that any political power held over them should be exercised by competent people in a competent way. ...

… Just as it would be wrong to force me to go under the knife of an incompetent surgeon, or to sail with an incompetent ship captain, it is wrong to force me to submit to the decisions of incompetent voters.” [1]

Such arguments can lead all too easily to disenfranchisement of underprivileged members of society, which would be a breach of their rights and would delegitimise governance from their perspective.  Loss of political legitimacy is the route to a divided society, resentment and potential unrest.  The competence that Brennan seeks, and is entitled to demand, does not have to reside in all his fellow citizens but should be required of their representatives during a consultation. 

People may belong to, or support, multiple interest groups in what has been called 'civil society' and these groups can play a part in putting pressure on politicians and in consultation processes (6.4.4).  Governments can formally consult group representatives (who tend to have an active interest and to be better informed than other group members) but safeguards are necessary to ensure that such representation has legitimacy:

·      The nominated representatives would have to be accepted as legitimate by all participants, so credible processes are needed for selection (and de-selection) and they would have to be given negotiating rights.  This depends upon the internal governance of each group.

·      A robust registration mechanism would be needed – to register the level of support for each group and to avoid people being represented more than once on the same issue – so that it would be possible to know how much weight to attach to each group in the bargaining process.

·      Not everybody belongs to an interest group and there is no formal group to represent the ‘silent majority’.  There is always the danger that pressure groups and business interests might 'punch above their weight' in influencing politicians (6.4.6) and there is a risk of this causing distortions in decision-making.  For some issues, consultation with groups may need to be supplemented by polling opinions across the whole breadth of the affected portion of the population. 

·      Different opinions will be expressed and reaching a decision will require more than just adding up votes.  For example, imagine a situation where building a new road would require the demolition of a factory; a lot of people might vote for the bypass and the few people who worked in the factory would be outnumbered – yet each worker's personal loss could be much greater than the personal benefit of somebody using the bypass.  A government needs some basis for weighing the different opinions before reaching its decisions and it then needs to explain to people how it has done this.

Provided that all of the above safeguards are present, consultation can greatly increase people's confidence that their government is taking proper account of their interests.  Policies can be seen to be adaptable and inclusive: accommodating minorities and sectional interests where it is possible to do so without infringing the rights of the majority.  It can also be considered as a mechanism for public deliberation whereby people can gradually change the opinion of others by putting forward arguments in a formal published process. It can overcome some of the deficiencies in political systems, where in democracies a single vote is not sufficient to represent all of a person's interests and in authoritarian systems where people don't choose the government. 

Consultative governance is starting to be implemented.  The British consultation with Muslims, as described below (, provides a democratic, if imperfect, example.  Authoritarian governments, to ensure their long-term survival, also have an interest in improving their communications with the people; the Chinese government, for example, has been experimenting with consultation ( 

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014                                                 

[1] Jason Brennan’s article The Right to a Competent Electorate, which was due to be published in Philosophical Quarterly, was available in May 2014 at http://philpapers.org/go.pl?id=BRETRT&u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww%2Ejasonfbrennan%2Ecom%2FRestrictedSuffragePQ%2Edoc.