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Consultation and the Great Exit experiment

Boris Johnson’s talk to the nation on Sunday night revealed a ‘conditional plan’ whereby a large number of Lockdown ‘relaxations’ were mentioned. To our knowledge, few if any of these have been subject to consultation outside the Whitehall bubble, but the inference is that they can be implemented, and either continue or be abandoned according to whether or not they are seen to work satisfactorily.

Coincidentally, the previous day, one of the TV channels carried an interesting interview with an environmental campaigner from a large northern city. He was delighted to hear of a possible move to limit car driving into his local city as part of the Lockdown exit strategy. He saw this as a way to return to a new ‘greener’ normal; an approach being widely advocated right now, and one that commands much public support. When asked about the need for popular consent, his response – if I heard it properly – was fascinating. The gist was that this could be a great eighteen-month experiment. If things worked out, they could keep the initiative; if not, they could abandon it. He then said “Isn’t that going to be the best form of public consultation”

I hope my inability to replay the interview does not distort his message, and it is not altogether a spurious idea. Try something out, and see if it works. It mirrors the Prime Minister’s message. We might make this change, but if the virus spreads and threatens us with an extra ‘spike’ in infections, then we will withdraw it. Alternatively, if it proves so unpopular that we cannot carry the public with us – we will abandon it and try again.

We should not dismiss these approaches. In a world of such uncertainty and where any amount of pre-implementation dialogue may be inhibited by doubts as to what the impacts will be, it sounds both plausible and reasonable. But it has some glaring pitfalls:

  • Announcing new initiatives with insufficient preparation often gets politicians and officials into trouble. Witness the immediate reaction to the Sunday evening speech. The devil is often in the detail, and vague announcements irritate stakeholders whose interests may be significantly affected. This is why we do pre-consultation. 
  • Changes introduced too quickly often produce winners and losers. The latter will feel aggrieved if they believe their interests were either overlooked or disregarded. It may not make them feel happy, but many would at least feel better if they knew that the policy-making exercise had followed a robust process and considered their views.
  • Implementing first, and asking people’s views afterwards allows mistakes and injustices to last longer than necessary. There is a temptation to let experiments last longer than intended, in the hope that unintended consequences work themselves out somehow, or poor impacts are mitigated by people getting used to unsatisfactory situations.
  • Allowing the ‘market’ to determine whether a new policy should or should not stay is alien to public services and probably inappropriate. A private company can launch a new product and wait to see if people buy it or not. When interfering with citizens’ liberties and behaviour patterns, more is at stake, and public bodies would be wiser to consult first rather than adopt a ‘wait-and-see’ to see what people think.

Now it is not impossible to have the best of both worlds. In a fluid situation, it is perfectly sensible to consult at the outset – before the change is implemented – and also to consult later on when stakeholders and consultees have more experience of how things worked out in practice. In fact, we should do this far more often. For example, how many times have consultations taken place on changes to NHS services when the debate has been speculative – How might the new arrangements work?  Perhaps it would serve us all better, if, sometime later we invested more in consultations asking the question How have the new arrangements worked? My guess is that such a dialogue would centre on rather different issues, and probably identify problems that are fixable by responsible management.

So there is nothing wrong in the proposed experiment on greener transport policies, and probing the views of citizens after a reasonable period. Neither is anything inherently problematic about some of the Lockdown exit ideas, whether from central government, local authorities or public bodies. BUT – and it is a big BUT, a failure to engage with key stakeholders before launching into the changes holds political and operational risks.

A good example of this was the private circulation a week ago of draft rules on social distancing which aroused the opposition of the Trades Union Council (TUC). Pre-consultation discussions on potential policy options are always best done as transparently as possible.

In summary, there is still probably too much top-down decision-making. There is a need for more dialogue, and as we explain in Briefing Paper 38, there is a strong case for consultation of various kinds. For Lockdown exit decisions, consultations may be short, heavily dependent upon the impressive range of online technology and very tightly focused. But it is possible to be rapid and responsible, and it should be our role in the Consultation Institute to help our members, clients and supporters to navigate this challenging path in the weeks and months ahead.


Trigger Points:

  1. Briefing Paper 38 is called Exit from Lockdown: the case for consultation 
  2. A summary article is called Exit from Lockdown; making the case for consultation
  3. One of the main ways to secure buy-in for contentious proposals is to use co-production techniques. Assess its relevance to you by tuning into the Wednesday Wisdom webinar
  4. Institute Associates are already advising public bodies on ways to manage existing and emerging obligations to consultation in the light of social distancing and other COVID-19 restrictions. For help on such issues, contact ……..


This is the 359th 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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