Is BREXIT changing the practice of public consultations?
Is it ‘business as usual’ or is there something changing in the world of public engagement?
BREXIT impacts so many aspects of our national life, but don’t yawn at the prospect of yet another analysis trying to balance the doom and gloom of Remainers against the joy and jubilation of Leavers. This topic tries to unravel some of the consequences of our national preoccupation; in particular its impact on public consultations. Indeed, is there an impact?
Public consultations have clearly continued in much the same way as before. Existing trends such as more use of social media, and for consultees to be increasingly prone to legal challenges have continued. But we observe some changes of emphasis.
- Central Government policy-making is increasingly contaminated by the uncertainties of BREXIT. Some are in stasis, as policy developments that might have occurred by now are suspended pending clarifications or are delayed whilst implications/impacts have to be considered against a model where there are too many moving pieces. There has been a reallocation of civil service resources leading to more people with limited experience left to manage public consultations, and a heavier than usual reliance on tried-and-tested templates or formulae.
- The National Health Service in England is in a strange position of having agreed a mechanism for managing significant changes (via Sustainability & Transformation Partnerships or STPs) but less sure how radical it ought to be. Mixed messages about future funding have combined with fears that political support might evaporate if plans are too controversial. Legal challenges such as the current case involving Horton Hospital in Banbury oblige STPs everywhere to be ultra-cautious and delay consultations until they have prepared properly.
- Local Government in England finds that George Osbourne’s enthusiasm for new-style devolution and Mayoral combined authorities is but a distant memory. We hear rumours that DCLG has told some Councils that any Departmental support will be on hold till the BREXIT issues and knotty problems about planning and the environment have been sorted It leaves many authorities in a no man’s land of uncertain future direction, leaving them unable to consult their residents on some key issues.
- The devolved administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast have to tread carefully knowing that the EU (Withdrawal) Bill in effect takes from them powers which had been devolved, so that Westminster Ministers can decide how best to re-devolve them. Not surprisingly, this does not go down well but it affects their ability to consult plan and legislate as they normally might.
All this amounts to the policy-making ‘planning blight’ that was forecast immediately after the Referendum, and is therefore not a great surprise. What was not so predictable is sea-change in the mood music of public engagement, only some of which is becoming apparent.
- Many people feel intensely liberated by the experience of voting for something and obliging politicians to deliver on it – even against their personal judgements. As in the Scottish referendum, it is suggested that people who were never before engaged in expressing their will, participated and liked the experience. They are not all ardent Leavers, but of those who were, many can’t wait to be given more opportunities …
- Conversely, there are many in the ‘educated liberal elite’ who were unhappy with the result and have lost confidence in the so-called wisdom of crowds. For them, having a Referendum was a bad experience and it makes them extremely wary of consultation processes where the published information could, in their eyes, be manipulated.
- Far from settling an issue once and for all, the BREXIT process looks as if it perpetuates the arguments as layer upon layer of previously un-considered detail are exposed to a wider world. It creates a reaction of boredom and frustration. “Can’t you guys just get on with it; who cares about those details?” It creates pressure to solve problems quickly rather than achieve an optimum result.
- Young people have been shown to have a different perspective from older generations. Only after the Referendum, and then confirmed by the 2017 General Election, did the inter-generational divide become so obvious. But it has an impact on deterring public bodies from consulting on proposals they believe will be unpopular with this age-group, and will therefore affect options development.
It may take a few years before we see these and other consequences seep into the cultural dynamic of consultation. But a few conclusions are already firm. The days of ‘going through the motions’ consultations are coming to an end. The public has a taste for greater involvement but expects public bodies to be scrupulously fair. They also expect honest information. Rows over BREXIT facts and figures upset many people and confirmed their low opinions of politicians. Those seeking to mount an honest consultation will have to do better. Finally, some campaigners will conclude that BREXIT is a story of citizens with an unfashionable cause ultimately forcing reluctant politicians to listen to them. Apply this to consultations and expect those who object to various proposals to try harder and subject public consultations to ever-more demanding scrutiny.
- Are you yet conscious of any BREXIT effect either delaying or otherwise affecting your consultations?
- Should raised expectations for your consultation oblige you to seek independent validation of your exercise and the chosen dialogue methods?
- The Institute has a clear view of the help STPs need and will shortly be making Rhion Jones and Nick Duffin available for one-to-one phone calls. Please indicate if these are of interest to you.
- Details of the Horton Hospitals case Click Here
This is the 329th 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.