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Meeting 3: Methods of engaging citizens in food and agricultural policy development

Thames Valley University/Sustain: Agri-Food Network meeting 13 November 2002

Present:
David Barling - City University
Hannah Bartram - Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
Sue Dibb - National Consumer Council
Georgina Dobson - Council for the Protection of Rural England
Fiona Hale - Consultant
Colin Hines - Consultant
Vicki Hird - Sustain
Lewis Holloway - Coventry University
Mike Joffe - Imperial College
Moya Kneafsey - Coventry University
Tim Lang - City University
Pippa Langford - Wildlife and Countryside Link
Jeanette Longfield - Sustain
Tim Marsh - UK Public Health Association
Michael Nelson - Kings College London
John Smith - Elgin Centre, Gateshead
Tom Wakeford - Institute of Development Studies

The theme of the third meeting was methods of engaging citizens in food and agriculture policy development.

Papers

Papers by Sue Dibb and Tim Lang had been circulated before the meeting.

  1. Sue Dibb (National Consumer Council): 'Involving consumers in food policy'
    PDF Icon Download as PDF - 280kb
     
  2. Tim Lang (Centre for Food Policy, TVU): 'Should the UK have a Food Policy Council?'
    PDF Icon Download as PDF - 125kb

1. Sue began by reaffirming that citizen involvement in policy development was essential but not yet the norm among government departments. Involvement, for the National Consumer Council (NCC), is a term that is intended to incorporate the full range of ways in which people can connect with the policy development process - from consultation, through representation to participation. She noted that there is no "best" way to involve citizens. Sue highlighted three questions about the process of involvement had arisen in the course of the NCC's work in this area:

  • a) How can different government departments learn from each other and improve how they engage citizens in their policy making processes? Currently, for example, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) regards its "independent" role as a barrier to greater collaboration with other government departments.
  • b) How can agencies better involve citizens whose voices are usually are not heard in any form of public involvement? This is particularly pertinent given widespread, and well-founded, public cynicism about public consultation exercises by government, particularly among "hard to hear" groups.
  • c) How can links be made between citizen involvement at local level, and national level policy development?

2. Fiona, John and Tom outlined the "Weekend Away for a Bigger Voice" process in which they had been engaged. John had been involved in the north east (the process had also taken place in the south west) and noted that, as a result of the initiative, local people had met policy makers at a number of levels. The local MP, local councillors, members of the Primary Care Trust and others had been largely supportive. A new organisation - Outlook North East - had been established, intending to focus on food as a local issue before possibly moving onto other topics of local concern. Less positive had been a meeting, and subsequent correspondence, between local people and national policy makers - Suzi Leather (FSA Deputy Chair) and Lord Whitty (the Food Minister in the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs - DEFRA).

3. Tom noted that despite the intention that the process should be more than the usual "hocus focus" groups, both the FSA and DEFRA had manipulated the results of the process, amplifying some and effectively silencing others. Links with the media can also amplify the process of citizen involvement in a positive or negative way, depending on the circumstances. Tom supported Sue's view that public cynicism about consultation exercises was justified, particularly in the light of the current government-funded debate about genetically modified crops, which has been criticised on a number of grounds by a wide range of organisations. He noted, nonetheless, that the UK (including government) was ahead of much of Europe (with the possible exception of some Scandinavian countries) in developing innovative methods of involving people in making public policy.

4. Tim L proposed that Food Policy Councils could be a mechanism for answering some of the questions raised by the previous presenters. He noted that major reforms had taken place in the UK's food and agriculture policy making processes. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food had been abolished, DEFRA had been created and the FSA established. However, the Department of Health (DH) remained unreformed and there were no mechanisms to resolve the tensions between health, the environment, job creation, trade and other policy issues related to food and agriculture. Instead of creating an integrated policy, government was drowning public interest bodies in largely meaningless consultation exercises. Food Policy Councils, at national level (as in some Scandinavian countries) and at local level (as in Toronto and, in embryo, in the north west and south west of England) could help create the necessary integration.

5. In the wide-ranging discussion which followed these presentations, a number of points were made, summarised below:

  • Methods of citizen involvement need to fit the political culture in which they operate. So, for example, consensus conference may work best in Denmark, where they originated, but perhaps less well in the UK?
  • We need to be aware of the danger of attempting to reinvent democracy. If citizen involvement methods become genuinely powerful in influencing the policy making process, to whom are they accountable, and what becomes of the role of elected representatives in local councils or in Parliament?
  • Throughout the meeting we have referred largely to people as citizens rather than consumers. Government still appears to be more comfortable with people in their more limited and arguably passive role as consumers, than as active citizens engaged in the democratic process.
  • What role could existing mechanisms play in integrating food and agriculture policies, creating links between local and national policy levels, and involving citizens? Suggestions included amended versions of the Curry Commission, the Rural Affairs Forum and Regional Development Agencies.
  • Co-ordination is not unambiguously benign. Closer integration between various branches of the policy making process could allow powerful groups to exert an even more far-reaching influence on the process, leaving marginalised groups more powerless than before.

Sue noted that there would be another opportunity to debate some of these issues in early 2003 as the NCC would be jointly hosting a conference with the FSA on involving low income consumers in developing food policy. She invited Agri-Food Network members to get in touch with her with any ideas for this event.

6. It was agreed that the next Agri-Food Network meeting should focus on regional and local food networks. This not only followed logically from the discussion at this meeting, but was also topical given the focus on regional government in the Queen's Speech. It was also agreed that the short, informal nature of the meetings remained valuable. However, an occasional change of format would be possible and a longer session - say 11am to 4pm - might be appropriate for the next meeting. Moya noted that Coventry University remains keen to host an Agri-Food Network meeting (it had not been possible on this occasion for a number of administrative reasons) and offered to make the arrangements for the next event. The meeting thanked Moya for this generous offer and Jeanette will liaise with her re. email lists and so forth.


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