Oli Davey, Urban Movement
There has been an increasingly strong focus in recent years on how best to reach those members of the public whose input is often under-represented during public engagement, and quite rightly so. But I thought that it might be interesting and worthwhile to consider how we may go about doing a better job of trying to convince those members of the public who do provide their views but who stand in opposition to the sorts of proposals that we are frequently developing – things like low traffic neighbourhoods, segregated cycling infrastructure and controlled parking zones – which a quick Google will show can prove to be highly controversial.
Part of the reason why I believe that this issue doesn’t appear to get discussed a great deal is the inherent sense that, if we are doing these things properly, we shouldn’t be using engagement to convince people of the value of our proposals. Instead, we should be using the opportunity to enable members of the public to help shape them. But the reality is that, if we want to address many of the challenges that, as a society, we are facing (and which all levels of Government have clear policies to deliver), whether they relate to climate, housing, changing demographics, social mobility, public health, economic productivity, etc., we will inevitably be asking at least some people to make often reasonably significant changes to their lives, and this will generate some opposition.
My suggestion is that, by better understanding the thinking that informs these opposing viewpoints frequently held by those who disagree with such proposals, we might be able to improve our communications and thereby increase the success rate of these projects. As well as reducing the political capital that often goes into getting them (and keeping them) implemented.
A particularly useful resource for exploring this area is the work carried out by the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, which he summarises in his book The Righteous Mind, published back in 2012. Haidt points out that acknowledging the fact that our moral values can differ quite significantly from each other is the first step toward understanding the challenges we often face when communicating with those who fundamentally have a different view of what a good society should look like. Perhaps rather obviously, he states that if you really want to engage with someone on their own terms then you’ll need to see things from that person’s point of view as well as your own. But the real trick is to actually understand the basis for these views. This can often be difficult when our proposals and even the issues that we are trying to address are potentially being dismissed by someone who sees the world in a very different way to us.
The Five-Factor Model of Personality (also known as the Big Five Personality Traits and well worth a Google if you haven’t already come across it) suggests that people tend to lean towards one of two camps – those who are inclined to be more open to new experiences and are intellectually more curious, and those who are inclined to be more conscientious and self-disciplined. Obviously, these are broad generalisations, but this model has been shown to be able to reliably predict the choices that people are most likely to make, including their political leanings. Importantly, whichever way you tend to lean, this is not a battle between good and evil, but rather two conflicting but equally heartfelt visions of what a good society should look like. And the resulting tension (when approached with a genuine desire to find a compromise) is actually necessary for a healthy democracy.
In my experience, entrenched opposition over new schemes is often compounded by discussions between the project team and members of the public with differing views of the world. These two ‘sides’, even with a genuine desire to listen, can sometimes end up talking past one another, unwittingly only addressing their own concerns associated with their personal view of how the world should be rather than attempting to empathise with those views held by others.
Haidt, through his own research and that of others, has come to the conclusion that people tend to build their world view upon a moral framework made-up of up to six distinct foundations. These are Care, Liberty, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity. What’s most important is that he has found that those on the left and right of the political spectrum focus on different aspects of each of the six foundations, and whilst those on the right give relatively equal weighting to all six, those on the left overwhelmingly prioritise the first three. This is why the right often feel that the left are, at best, being fantastically naïve in their views, whilst the left can feel like the right has simply lost its mind and / or its conscience.
In summary, those on the left tend to see the Care foundation as a fight for the oppressed, underdogs, victims, and powerless groups everywhere. For those on the right this is defined somewhat differently, with their understanding of Care focusing much more on the need to look after those who’ve already sacrificed for the group / wider community.
Liberty on the left most commonly focuses on equality, which is then pursued by fighting for civil and human rights. Conversely, those on the right see Liberty as the right to be left alone, free from government interference.
Everyone cares about Fairness, but there are two major kinds. On the left, fairness again often implies equality, but on the right it means proportionality. People should get what they deserve, based on what they have done, even if that sometimes results in unequal outcomes. Pulling your own wait and being rewarded for your efforts are cornerstones of this way of thinking.
When it comes to moral concerns about Loyalty (such as pride in your country), Authority (deference to traditional structures such as family) and Sanctity (such as push back against consumerism), Haidt suggests that the right has an almost complete monopoly, with the left commonly seeing such concerns as old-fashioned and stifling individual choice, particularly of those from commonly oppressed groups (and we circle back to Liberty again). A rare example where the left does typically stray into this territory is around the use of Sanctity in relation to issues such as the environmental movement (climate change), along with ways of eating and exercising that aim to cleanse the body of toxins.
The above differences starts to make it plain why people can view the introduction of something like a low traffic neighbourhood so very differently? And why a failure to understand and act upon this can lead to a great deal of opposition to Council projects.
On a slightly different, but related topic it is also worth pointing out that, in general, the left tend to start from the point of view that people are inherently good, and that they will therefore flourish when constraints and divisions are removed. Whilst those on the right tend to believe that people are inherently imperfect and are prone to act badly when all constraints and accountability are removed. They would suggest that our reasoning is flawed and prone to overconfidence. Thomas Sowell’s book A Conflict of Visions covers this topic in a lot more detail, but this theory again highlights how the value and potential issues of any proposals for our streets are likely to be viewed very differently by different people.
Hopefully, you can see why even the best efforts from council Officers and their consultants to engage with local communities can fail to land in the way that they hoped? This can often be because those changes that are seen by the promoters of a scheme as an obvious good can be viewed very differently by others. Equally, the potential implications of some aspects of a project may go completely unnoticed by these same scheme promoters, but represent significant issues to certain members of the public.
By failing to recognise and address these differing views of the world we risk inadvertently fuelling opposition to our proposals and making the job of delivering on Government policy that much harder. It may not be a particularly glamourous topic, but I would suggest that understanding the basis for potential opposition to a project from those that may share a very different view of the world to your own is a good place to start. With this in mind I would recommend that everyone gives Johnathan Haidt’s book a go