Legitimacy of Consultations

The legitimacy of consultations depends upon safeguards to ensure appropriate representation and transparent decision-taking.

Voting in a democracy is a way of picking up the preference of a majority, but it doesn’t bring out the concerns of minorities.  It is also subject to the criticism that people can have several reasons for voting and they may not be well-informed (  Consultations can overcome these limitations.  Authoritarian governments, to ensure their long-term survival, also have an incentive to make some aspects of governance negotiable (

Jason Brennan, in his book Against Democracy, argued that only educated people should be allowed to vote in what he termed an ‘epistocracy’; The New Yorker magazine published a review of this book, tracing its thinking back to Plato, under the title The Case against Democracy.  Such arguments would disenfranchise underprivileged members of society, breaching their rights and delegitimising governance from their perspective, but consultative governance offers a way out.  The competence that Brennan seeks does not have to reside in all his fellow citizens – but should be required of their representatives during a consultation.

In some circumstances, then, consultation might be more legitimate than universal voting – but the legitimacy of consultations depends upon robust processes being in place:

●  A robust registration mechanism would be needed for interest groups – 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.  If building a new road would require the demolition of a factory for example, many 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.  Politicians needs a basis for weighing the different opinions before reaching decisions and they then need to explain to people how they have done this.

●  Transparency is essential: to ensure that the public can see how the participants have been chosen, to see what arguments have been put forward, and to see that the process has been conducted fairly.

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.

Consultative governance is not a panacea and is complex.  A British example, HS2 launches public consultations on plans to extend the railway north, looked as if it would be an exemplary consultation.  This part of the project has since been cancelled, though, and “People living along the route …have reacted with anger and relief after it was scrapped”.  It can be argued that this is an example of a successful consultation, in that public opinion has been listened to, but it begs the question of whether the country as a whole has benefited by the decision to scrap it.  The cancellation had the effect of “slashing the economic benefits of the project by three quarters since it was first proposed” according to the Campaign for Better Transport.  As reviewed later (6.8.4), the views of all interested parties should be taken into account.  People in the north of England should have been listened to as much as those living along the line even though they would be less severely affected than those whose homes would be demolished.


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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6533b.htm.