Boaty says: ‘Ask me something I want to influence’

The story of Boaty McBoatface tells us something about ‘voice’ and the roles respect and meaning play.

The story of Boaty McBoatface has caught the attention of many since it blew up a rather lovely storm in spring. It clearly tells us something about ‘voice’ but the discussion I’ve seen has, in my opinion, missed the most important lesson.

For those of you who it passed by, here’s the story in a nutshell. To raise public interest in its new £200m Royal Research Ship, the Natural Environment Research Council (Nerc) let the general public decide its name. An open call for online suggestions, voted for with an open online poll. It went viral and gained international media coverage, it’s fair to say, not because of inherent interest in research vessels, but for the fact that joke names were topping the list. In the end, ‘RRS Boaty McBoatface’ won by a mile, with 124,109 votes. Even ‘RRS It’s Bloody Cold Here’, with 10,679 votes, beat the sensible option of ‘RRS Sir David Attenborough’ with 10,284.

Cue debates on the Great British Sense of Humour versus the inability of this shallow generation to give things due respect; and on whether Nerc should opt for a respectable name or respect the decision it had handed the public. On 6 May, Nerc announced its decision, which didn’t coincide with the vox populi. David Attenborough got the honour, although Boaty McBoatface will be a remote control submarine on board the RRS. I suspect all publicity is good publicity, the public’s had its fun, Nerc has raised its profile and when they come out, viewing figures for the first images sent back by Boaty should be pretty good.

What’s missing is the reason why the public responded to this particular poll as it did – in a way that was either just plain frivolous, or satirical, trying through the mask of frivolity to make a serious point. It’s not a case of ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer, but it is clear that the offer – name the boat – was not important or meaningful enough in the eyes of many.

We live in an age where there is a cult of Voice. Everyone wants to hear our views, from toiletry manufacturers to government. Or at least, they say they do. We often sense they aren’t really that interested, as they set such narrow parameters, reducing our potential influence to tinkering round the edges. There was no public consultation on whether to spend £200m on a research ship, for example. We may also suspect that above hearing our views, the real driver of consultation is to pique our interest in someone’s product. So we think ‘I don’t have time for this’, or perhaps ‘Let’s have some fun and make a point’.

If that sounds cynical, bear with me a moment and let me compare it to another recent case of voice, or rather the lack of it. In March, the UK government announced plans to remove parents from school boards and replace them with more independent expertise, for example from local business leaders. The move quickly attracted criticism, including that parent and ‘expert’ roles in school governance are ‘not mutually exclusive’.

There’s pretty clear value in involving parents as stakeholders. The real stakeholders of schools are the pupils, of course, and there has been a rise in direct pupil participation through school councils. But there are limits to what children can do in governance. Parents may have more gravitas to ask challenging questions, or be more able to consider long-term interests above their pet concerns. More often than not, they are going to be the children’s best representatives.

The point I’d draw here is that it’s patently not the case that the general public has lost its appetite for voice. Boaty McBoatface does not illustrate that we can’t be trusted. It shows that for voice to be respected, it has to be meaningful to us, and for it to be meaningful it has to concern something we actually want to influence. Something we have a stake in. There are issues on which people are desperate to have a voice on.

A trade union representative put it nicely in a study I did a while ago:

'One of the reasons I [temporarily] walked away from joint consultation was the arguments over how many chips make a portion of chips. I’m not interested in that. I’m not interested in whether we have soft loo paper or hard loo paper – I couldn’t give a monkey’s. What I’m interested in as a representative is making sure the long-term viability of this site and making sure that all the big issues are dealt with and our members … [can] say what they think about those issues.'

It’s a great challenge to employers and also governments and others in positions of power: are you giving people a voice on things that matter to them? This is not the only crucial question on voice – another one, for another blog another time, is whether voice should automatically mean influence – but it’s a good starting point.

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