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

Click to follow
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 would also have access to test reaction to existing policies and new proposals. Today the Public Service Minister, David Clark, 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.

"My job is to find responses to these problems - ways to bring government and the people together, through listening, learning, and being more open and responsive," he said.

The initiatives are similar to the "electronic town hall" being pioneered by the US Vice-President, Al Gore. In Australia in December a 300-strong "People's Convention" will consider whether to keep the British monarch as its 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 regular Tory charges against Labour during the election was that it 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 programme. 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 New Labour, with other techniques of the advertising business, by Peter Mandelson. During the general-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.