“The empty busywork of visible consultation” [Don Paterson]

Sometimes you read something that resonates so powerfully that it brings previously unconscious thoughts or attitudes into the light of conscious awareness.

That’s what happened to me when I read the open letter written by Dundee poet Don Paterson and published in The (Glasgow) Herald in September 2012.

He was publicly criticising the way Creative Scotland had asked writers to take part in a consultation on some issue or other of importance to Scottish writers, but had then completely disregarded the input from those consultees. Here’s the relevant passage:

“A couple of years ago I was part of a group set up by one of our most literate MSPs to review literature funding in Scotland. I was honoured to find myself in a room with a handful of the more serious players in the Scottish literature sector. We were, however, assembled to do the empty busywork of visible consultation, and we should have known at the time. The process itself was unprofessional, mendacious, corrupt, and ruined by just the sort of nepotism, autocratic whim and lack of oversight that our final report complained of.

“Predictably, not one recommendation was directly acted upon, nor received anything but the most anodyne lip-service. The report was charged with providing a strategy. That the one we proposed was summarily rejected was bad enough; perhaps it was the wrong one. But that precisely none has been seen or enunciated since is wholly unforgivable.”

When I read this I suddenly realised that this had happened to me and my village community when our local authority ‘consulted’ with us over the location of a much-needed new primary school. The community worked together very well to raise awareness of the alternative proposals, and a very strong consensus emerged in favour of one.

Guess which one was built? Yes, of course the other one, resulting in a real material loss of a popular and much-used playing field.

Not only that, my newly raised consciousness started recognising all the other times in recent years when I had been given the illusion of influence where, in fact, it was all a sham.

For example, the same local authority (starved of cash as the all are in these times of Austerity) ‘consulted’ with parents over whether to switch to an asymmetic school week. It was a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes, as the benefits of such a change to our kids’ education were promulgated, but absolutely everybody knew the change would definitely be implemented because it would allow the Council to save £350K on teacher salaries.

We are currently being consulted over proposed changes to flightpaths around Edinburgh Airport. Will it be any wonder that they get a dismal response rate? I simply feel sorry for the poor residents who will inevitably get more noise while rejoicing for those who will get less.

So what I realise – maybe later in life than I should have – is that sometimes you shouldn’t play football; instead you have to pick up the ball and run with it.

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