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Boris – comedian or chameleon?

How consultative a Prime Minister will Boris become?

Are there clues in his previous record?

In fact, there is one really big one ….

Boris Johnson had expressed his view about Ken Livingstone’s proposed extension of the congestion charge. In his own words,

“I will consult the residents in the (Congestion Charge) zone and on the border on whether we should keep the Western extension, and whatever the result I will abide by it”.

Precisely eleven years and eight weeks ago, I wrote about this preference for a ‘binding consultation’, and in one article, by fluke, I managed to anticipate the decade-long drift towards direct democracy without which, it is most unlikely that Boris would have made the top job.

I pointed out the dangers. How winning the vote is not the same as winning the argument; how it prompts debate as to who is entitled to respond, and how it can leave the seldom-heard with less influence. I gently suggested that this can sometimes work when the decision-maker has no strong opinions and is content with whatever the consultation output suggests. But few politicians are indifferent to matters important enough to warrant a consultation. Unless of course, one is more interested in public popularity than in the judgement-call required for really difficult issues. A comedian plays an audience for laughs. Should we be honest and accept that politicians similarly play the electorate for votes?

Boris Johnson cannot, of course be accused of lacking policies or principles. But maybe he is more of a chameleon than many others – able to change his colour or trim his views to the prevailing mood?

Is he possibly the Prime Minister that will approach public consultations from a position of “I’m not sure I know what to do; let me hear your views, and then I’ll decide”  Our analysis in The Politics of Consultation  – and much history – suggests that few politicians can take risks of this kind, but maybe there are times when they should? I suspect we may be about to find out.

For those interested in how history repeats itself, and for the curious who might like to read the 110th Tuesday Topic from May 2008, here it is … in full:

Binding consultations – A positive sign of things to come …or is this Boris’ first big blunder?

May 27, 2008

The new Mayor of London has made a remarkable pledge:-
“I will consult the residents in the (Congestion Charge) zone and on the border on whether we should keep the Western extension, and whatever the result I will abide by it”.

On the surface, here is a clear, unambiguous commitment, no doubt welcomed by all those who criticise politicians for ducking and weaving on tricky issues where opinion is divided. Indeed, it is possible that Boris is catching the mood of the moment by letting people determine more things for themselves; we’re not consulted about the winner in Strictly Come Dancing or The “X” Factor; we vote. And are not initiatives like Hazel Blears’ Community Kitties a recognition that people participate if they think they can directly influence the result.

But there is a downside. Here are five reasons why offering a “binding” consultation may not be so clever after all:-

  1. If you’re going to decide something solely on the basis of how many people support or oppose it, go the whole hog and organise a proper referendum. That way, everyone has an equal opportunity to vote, there is less scope to cheat and opposing sides in an argument can enjoy broadly equal access to the media. Using consultation as a surrogate plebiscite won’t work.
  2. Determining the result may not be straightforward. Even if one were to try to do so on the basis of the number of responses …..who do you count? In Boris’ case, deciding which respondents are “residents” and which aren’t won’t be easy; what about commuters into the area? And what if you sent in three responses? Or, heaven forbid, what if campaigning pressure groups organise mass responses ….from goodness know where?
  3.  Effective consultations are much more about qualitative debate than just counting votes. How will Boris judge who wins the argument? Will he appoint experienced assessors to read and evaluate all submissions? This is certainly feasible, but don’t expect that the general public agrees with them.
  4. Offering any community a “veto” on new developments creates a culture of opposition. Planners already complain that the only people who participate in planning dialogues tend to be those who want to oppose something. If this is combined with a tendency to rely on the numbers game, one just encourages all the critics to organise like mad and do the consultation equivalent of stuffing the ballot-box. Well organised opponents can then always win even when they have a weak case.
  5. Sometimes the clinching arguments in a debate come from hard-to-reach or seldom-heard quarters. That is why consultation best practice is to lean over backwards to listen to such groups, and redress the traditional bias in favour of the usual suspects. Offering a binding consultation without suitable safeguards to ensure that the debate is fully inclusive will perpetuate existing power structures.

Now in the case in point, these criticisms may not all be relevant. Boris Johnson may be so relaxed that it matters little to him which way the decision goes ….he can live with either result. But future consultations he initiates may not be like that. He may have a more determined view. Or there may be other factors he has to consider – cost, timescales, consistency with other policies etc. Where the will of the people is but one of a number of factors that will influence a decision, telling them that their view will be paramount is a mistake.

Binding consultations is like a genie let out of the bottle, for once you promise to abide by a result in one consultation – it may be difficult ever again to revert to the conventional mode whereby the decision-maker listens to the argument …. and then makes up his or her mind. Whether the Conservative Party intends to adopt this as its normal approach to consultation will no doubt emerge over time. After all, there may be a case for selecting those (few?) consultations where the consultor has a completely open mind and declare that they will be binding. Provided, of course one can distinguish them from the rest, and educate the public to tell the difference.

In the meantime they, like us, can observe what happens in London. It should be fascinating to watch.

Trigger points

  • Consider whether there are situations in your organisations where your reputation among stakeholders would be enhanced by declaring consultation to be binding
  • Is there sufficient clarity in your communications so that the public’s expectations re the outcomes of consultations are appropriate?
  • If you are consulting a particular locality, have you defined the range of consultees sufficiently precisely and ensured that all relevant stakeholders will be heard?

This is the 110th Tuesday Topic; a full list of subjects covered is available for Institute members and is a valuable resource covering so many aspects of consultation and engagement

About the Author

Rhion Jones is considered a leading authority on Public Engagement and Consultation. A founding Director of the Consultation Institute, he is co-author of “The Art of Consultation” (2009) and “The Politics of Consultation” (2018). He has delivered over 500 training courses and Masterclasses and is a prolific writer on the subject, having written over 350 different Topic papers and over 50 full Briefing Papers for the Institute. Since 2003 over 15,000 person-days of training based on courses he invented have been delivered. Rhion is in demand as an entertaining Keynote Speaker and Special Adviser, particularly on the Law of Consultation, and its implications for Government and other Public Bodies. In 2017, he was awarded the ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’.

Read more about Rhion

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