Consultation at a time of disappearing trust
Is a disillusioned public more or less likely to embrace public consultation?
Week-by-week, the political hysteria-level rises, and it is a common assumption by the commentariat that trust in politicians and the political process is at an all-time low. Does this mean that attempts to engage and consult on important issues will become more difficult? Or might it actually help as people look for better ways to influence what happens?
First, let’s challenge that base assumption. In his excellent and thought-provoking book, The Perils of Perception (2018), Bobby Duffy formerly of IPSOS-MORI casts doubt on the idea. He claims that “Every year there are studies that purport to show a ‘new crisis of trust’; but the evidence for that is scant and more likely to reflect our rosy retrospection, looking back to a mythical time of respect and deference.” In fact, politicians have been about as unpopular as you can get for decades, and if the numbers have become significantly worse, it has happened only in the last few months.
Much of the problem is that we mean different things when we talk about ‘trust’. There is a difference between whether or not we believe politicians, individually or collectively and whether we have faith in the fundamentals of the system. If there is a discernible shift in recent weeks, it is most likely an erosion in people’s confidence in the process of decision-making. It is the traditional stability and acceptance of those decision-making institutions such as Parliament or the Judiciary that is now more at risk; after all, the public has long abandoned much respect for the individuals themselves. If that analysis is correct, does that disillusionment extend to other public bodies and their attempts to involve the public when key decisions have to be taken?
Consultation is most often about gathering information about stakeholder views on possible outcomes. Who is likely to be affected? How badly will they be affected? Are the benefits real? Will proposed changes work? Can we afford it? And so on. People and organisations respond because they are sufficiently interested in the subject or maybe because they think their views can genuinely influence that outcome. If they think that decision-makers are all liars and cheats, why should they bother? If they think the system is corrupt, why should they believe that anyone will take a blind bit of notice? After all, the complaint against many in public life is that they do not listen and that when undertaking a consultation, they are merely going through the motions?
On the other hand, these dangers have always existed. Sixteen years ago, when the Institute began, there were identical concerns – mostly justified. But things have changed:-
- More organisations have learnt how to consult properly. There is far more expertise around, and public bodies, in particular, have learnt that effective consultation enhances their reputations. Local authorities, NHS bodies and other institutions have learnt the value of distinguishing between their institutional reputation as distinct from the image of individual political leaders or Chief Executives. The better ones have therefore invested in public engagement and communications.
- The Courts have intervened to enforce consultation standards. Whilst it is still possible to run a ‘sham’ consultation, a legal challenge is likely to succeed, cost the defendant money and send it back to square one with a decision still to address and its reputation damaged. The Law of Consultation continues to develop, and slowly but surely, the worst practices are being eliminated.
- The dynamics of public debate have changed. Parliament is no longer the main cockpit of the nation’s deliberations (although recent weeks are an interesting exception). Broadsheet newspapers and public service broadcasting now have to share centre stage with social media, and there is evidence of more – not less political engagement, distasteful as much of it may have become. Far from breeding apathy, recent political excitement may be increasing, not decreasing the propensity for involvement in public affairs. There is certainly little evidence to suggest a decline in response rates for public consultations.
What our current catharsis has done is sparked off the search for more and better ways to consult. There is a widespread dislike for referendums from fans of representative democracy, but those on the winning side are usually happy with the process. Citizens Assemblies are in vogue and we watch their progress with great interest. And more participative forms of solving problems are gaining traction through co-production or participatory budgeting. Online consultation has inevitably become popular but needs care so as not to discriminate against those that find this less accessible.
There are some who believe that our current woes will be over if and when the BREXIT cloud is lifted one way or another. But assume not. Suppose we face a future of consistent negative perceptions of our democratic institutions. Will this result in a move away from the kind of public consultation which is undertaken today?
On balance, we think not. Consultation is now so well-entrenched and clearly works well when difficult decisions are contemplated. What public bodies and leaders must now do is use it well, meet and maintain high standards and demonstrate that its outputs are “conscientiously considered”. That, of course, is the legal formulation used in ‘Gunning Four’. In the week, therefore, where the Supreme Court has to decide upon one of the most fundamental of our rights, it is as well to reflect that confidence in consultation – like much else – depends upon sticking to the rules. In this case, that means understanding consultee views thoroughly before taking decisions. If we do that, trust in the process can still be preserved.
- Do your stakeholders trust your consultation process? Have you found ways to assess their confidence in the way you undertake public engagement and consultation?
- Bobby Duffy will be speaking about The Perils of Perception (Atlantic Books, 2018) at tCI Connect on 27th November in Birmingham.
- You can learn more about the Law of Consultation at the Institute’s training courses. One day courses will run tomorrow in London and on the 14 Nov in York. For more in-depth consideration, consider attending the 2-day Masterclass.
This is the 351st 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.