Need a people's policy? Ask the People's Panel

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The Independent Online
The Government's proposed 5,000-strong "People's Panel" of voters, to test attitudes to policies and public services, is the natural conclusion to an increasingly market-driven approach to politics. It is also part of a global trend.

The Cabinet Office, it emerged yesterday, may use the panel to test people's attitudes to services ranging from utility companies to the performance of bus firms. Other departments could also test reaction to existing policies and new proposals. Today, David Clark, the public service minister, meets officials in Washington to discuss ways of bringing government and people closer.

Before leaving for the US he said "growing estrangement" between government and people was a "key problem" facing many democracies.

The initiatives are similar to the "electronic town hall" being pioneered by the US Vice-President, Al Gore. And in Australia in December a 300- strong "People's Convention" will consider whether to keep the Queen as head of state.

The Government has made much of the need to keep in touch with the people, with the Prime Minister embarked on a series of monthly "talk to Tony" sessions.

Yesterday, Conservatives were already attacking the idea as "party political research". One of the Tory charges during the election was that Labour based its policies on the views of focus groups, not on conviction.

Yet the "People's Panel" has metamorphosed from a number of trends, not least John Major's much-derided Citizen's Charter. The focus group originated in the advertising industry, where groups were asked to compare brands, and give detailed reasoning for their answers.

It was introduced to Labour by Peter Mandelson, the party's campaign manager. During the election campaign, virtually no aspect of Labour's image - even down to Mr Blair's smile - was not passed through the focus groups before reaching the wider public.