Do Public Consultations Reduce Blame Attribution? The Impact of Consultation Characteristics, Gender, and Gender Attitudes

Anthony Kevins, Loughborough University

Barbara Vis, Utrecht University

Politicians regularly have to make decisions that may end up backfiring. As a result, evading blame for any negative consequences of those decisions is a key goal for elected representatives – especially if they’d like to be re-elected. 

One way to try to minimize potential blame is to bring other people – such as opposition politicians, experts, or voters – into the decision-making process. In the current context, we need only think of the prominent role given to public health experts by prime ministers and presidents to get a sense for how popular this approach might be. But notwithstanding any inherent benefits and drawbacks of collective decision-making, doing so may help politicians by making it harder for citizens to pin down any responsibility later on. 

Building on this logic, public consultations – gatherings organized to solicit constituent opinions – may be an effective tool for politicians looking to avoid blame. But do they actually affect blame attribution? And if they do, what sorts of factors shape how effective consultations are at pre-empting blame? We examine these questions in a new article in Political Behavior, which uses two pre-registered survey experiments on nationally representative US samples to investigate the effect of: (1) consultation characteristics, e.g., whether or not the politician aligns their decision with constituent opinion; and (2) politician and constituent characteristics, e.g., the politician’s gender and constituents’ gender attitudes. 

In Study 1, we presented respondents with a vignette describing a city council decision to cut funding for a homeless shelter, which ultimately resulted in the death of two homeless people during a cold snap. Respondents randomly read either about a decision taken unilaterally by a mayor (the control), or a post-consultation decision the mayor took that either went against constituent opinion (listen and explain) or was in line with it (listen, explain, and align). We also considered, among other factors, the effect of varying the mayor’s gender (male versus female). Next, we presented the experimental treatments and outlined the potentially blame-worthy consequences. Finally, we measured our outcome: blame attribution. 

Study 1 – Predicted Values of Blame Attribution, Overall Effects and by Mayor’s Gender   

Note: All figures show mean responses with 83.5 percent confidence intervals, such that a lack of overlapping confidence intervals indicates statistical significance at the p < 0.05 level. Coefficients and levels of statistical significance (indicating differences relative to the corresponding control group) are also included. * p<0.05; ** p<0.01; *** p<0.001

Findings suggest that consultations shape blame attribution, but that gender does not. Panel A shows that respondents’ blame attribution levels were lower when the mayor listened, explained, and aligned their position with consultation participants’ preferences. Yet when the mayor’s position did not align with the majority, there was no such effect. Moreover, Panel B shows that there is no effect of the mayor’s gender in and of itself – a result that is consistent regardless of respondents’ hostile sexism levels. 

Study 2 then replicated Study 1 with a few important changes: it focuses on an issue that is less partisan-colored (flood-damage prevention instead of homeless shelter funding); it included more gender cues, to ensure that respondents were noticing the mayor’s gender; and it incorporated a distinction between incidental alignment (i.e., participants at the public consultation happened to agree with the mayor’s plan) and active alignment (i.e., the mayor changed course to align their plan with participant opinion). Results broadly replicated those of Study 1, so we focus here on Study 2’s novel components. 

Study 2 – Predicted Values of Blame Attribution, by (Non-)Adaptation and Mayor’s Gender

Does it matter whether the mayor changed course or simply pushed forward with their initial proposal? Panel A suggests that it does, since respondents tended to assign less blame to politicians who changed course – yet this is the case regardless of whether or not they consulted the population. Our results also reveal substantial variation where the politician’s decision did not align with constituent opinion: within the listen and explain treatment group, active dis-alignment (i.e., changing course where the population was supportive of the mayor’s initial stance) was linked to greater blame relative to the control, whereas we find no effect in cases of passive dis-alignment (i.e., staying course even though the population disagrees with the mayor’s stance). 

Finally, it’s also worth noting that despite the stronger gender cues in Study 2, we still find no evidence that blame attribution increases when the mayor is a woman rather than a man. As Panel B illustrates, we see only modest differences in consultation effects based on the mayor’s gender. Further corroborating Study 1’s results, Study 2 also finds little evidence of a connection between hostile sexism and blame attribution. 

Overall, our two studies show that public consultations may well, under specific conditions, reduce blame attribution – thus helping politicians to potentially avoid being blamed for decisions that end up backfiring. As long as participant opinion isn’t actively opposed to the mayor’s final decision, people seem less inclined to blame an elected representative who holds a public consultation on the issue.

Interestingly, this suggests that although public consultations are regularly praised for their potential to improve democratic quality, they may also serve as an effective anticipatory blame avoidance strategy: by muddying clarity of responsibility, voters may be less inclined to point the finger at the politician who took the decision. It is also striking that these dynamics seem to play out similarly regardless of the elected representative’s gender and the respondents’ gender attitudes. Our findings thereby broadly align with research suggesting that gender-related characteristics may have less widespread effects on reactions to scandals and controversies than is sometimes assumed. 

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