To fight climate populism, put participation at the heart of government

Rishi Sunak’s recent rollback of net-zero policies has been widely interpreted as an explicit attempt to try to create political and cultural dividing lines that turn efforts to tackle climate change into wedge issues at the next election.

Seizing on what he sees as potential friction points, the Prime Minister has kicked government deadlines on gas boilers, petrol and diesel vehicles and energy efficiency down the line by a decade and proposed a new bill to encourage oil and gas drilling in the North Sea.

The implications of this are worrying. Although many environmentalists argue that the Prime Minister has misread the public mood, others believe the framing of net zero as an unnecessary cost for a public struggling with a cost-of-living crisis could become salient.

Where's the public's voice in climate policy?

While national opinion polls suggest net-zero policies remain popular overall, there’s still significant public concern around fairness and questions about cost. At the heart of this uncertainty is the fact that there has never been any meaningful large-scale public engagement on how we might get to net zero.

The vast majority of the public has not yet had any opportunity to understand or grapple with different options, debate the potential benefits and trade-offs, or influence the details of how net zero could be delivered fairly.

As a result a vacuum of understanding has opened up since the net-zero target was committed to legislation in 2019.

This has left an opening for political opportunism, populist rhetoric and the promotion of conspiracy theories. From a ‘war’ on motorists, to 15-minute cities as a plot to control people’s freedoms, this kind of populism deliberately exploits people’s legitimate questions or concerns.

At best this will waste time as the political bubble argues with itself and the public watches on. At worst it will polarise opinion in a way that potentially puts achieving agreement on the changes needed to get to net zero out of reach.

Doing things differently on the road to net zero

Involving people is critical to reaching net zero - especially with so many of the emissions reductions now needed in areas that will affect our daily lives - how we travel, how we heat our homes and the food that we eat. It’s one of the reasons why the UK Climate Change Committee and the Government’s Net Zero Review advocated for a public engagement strategy, an idea enthusiastically endorsed by civil society groups, but that has not gained much traction within Government itself.

But the next government is an opportunity to do net-zero policy-making differently. There should be a nationwide programme of public participation that will support people to have their say on how net zero is achieved (both locally and nationally), and how it is paid for, involving people in finding solutions to the issues that concern them - particularly around fairness.

This doesn’t have to be a tick-box exercise, or a public meeting where only the loudest and angriest get heard. Whilst face to face forums are still vital, for example the burgeoning popularity of citizens assemblies, in 2023 there are a range of modern methods that draw on new approaches and digital tools, to allow people to contribute in ways that are both convenient, engaging and meaningful.

Innovate through public participation

At Nesta’s Centre for Collective Intelligence Design we’ve been using more innovative forms of public participation with our partners across the UK and Europe. Examples include the ‘The Strategy Room’, a digitally-enhanced deliberation tool on net zero for local councils, citizen science initiatives across Europe, and designing ways that the EU’s Green Deal missions can involve the public.

The recent burst of citizen assemblies, including both the UK and Scottish climate assemblies - is an acknowledgement that policy-making benefits from the input of members of the public.

But these processes typically only engage small numbers of people. What has been missing so far is a programme of large-scale public engagement activities and mechanisms. Not public advertising campaigns - but activities with a connection directly into local and national government and with a genuine remit to inform policy and action.

One of the reasons this hasn’t happened is because public engagement efforts across government are often fragmented - with little coordination between teams or departments and a myriad of suppliers.

Redrawing government through participation

To deliver large-scale public participation on net-zero policy, an incoming Prime Minister and his team will also have to wrestle the machinery of government into a sensible structure that can actually deliver it. The more difficult question is how? There are three options depending on how ambitious we want to be.

Public Participation Secretariat

The easiest option would be to establish a ‘Public Participation Secretariat’ that would bring together existing public engagement experts and researchers across government, departmental communications teams and the Government Communication Service.

The risk is that it might achieve only incremental change and get caught up in interdepartmental bureaucracy, but it could be established quickly and easily and could improve coordination and focus, as well as help share learning and insights across departments.

People's Climate Council

A second option would be the creation of new arms-length public bodies, such as a ‘People’s Climate Council’ that would be tasked with delivering high-quality participation activities at scale, accompanied by the appointment of a high-profile ‘Climate Conversations Tsar’ who would provide these new organisations with access and influence with senior ministers, plus public visibility and media profile.

This freedom from government structures could enable a closer relationship with communities and greater innovation and agility at the risk of disconnection from government and limited influence.

Citizen Participation Service

By far the best option would be the most radical reform - establishing a Citizen Participation Service, a centralised centre of excellence for citizen participation at the heart of government, reporting to Cabinet.

It would build cross-government platforms and develop innovative digital tools and offline approaches for public participation on net zero and climate adaptation, working across all departments to plan, commission and deliver participation activities. It would help build skills and expertise inside government, drive up quality and lead on strategy.

Like any far-reaching reform it would take time to establish a new institutional structure within government, but as with the creation of the Government Digital Service in 2011, a new government is the perfect time to break out of old structures.

A democratic necessity

Whilst the institutional options above might sound radical to UK ears, there are plenty of examples from other countries to show it can be done. From Taiwan’s cadre of participation officers and use of AI-enabled digital tools such as Polis, to Barcelona City’s Office of Citizen Science and France’s Interministerial Center for Citizen Participation.

Arguments against public participation and engagement often include the time required to plan and run such processes, but the public policy world has to accept that public participation is moving from being a ‘nice-to-have’ to a necessity.

For the risks of not doing so, we only need to look to the furore in Germany over the government’s phase out of gas boilers or the protests of Dutch farmers against plans to reduce emissions from livestock.

Public participation in policy making may not be a panacea for the predicament that governments find themselves in, but it is a crucial component in our ability to navigate our country to a greener, more democratic, more co-created future.


Kathy Peach

Kathy Peach

Kathy Peach

Director of the Centre for Collective Intelligence Design

The Centre for Collective Intelligence Design explores how human and machine intelligence can be combined to develop innovative solutions to social challenges

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