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Engagement impacts of Cummings and Goings

Whatever happens to the individual, Dominic Cummings lockdown travelling will have an impact upon relationships with the public over the coming months.

It has highlighted political disquiet about the consistency of the lockdown observance, as between those in high office and the rest of us. Only time will tell if people behave differently, or if Ministers may have to make less optimistic assumptions when planning the relaxation of lockdown arrangements.

Downing Street clearly hopes that the affair will quickly die down, and might just about concede that it could have handled the situation better. Cummings himself agreed that it might have been better had he published his detailed account of what happened much earlier. Indeed, communications professionals always advise early disclosure and full disclosure; delay only encourages speculation and allows the story to develop.

The real issue is TRANSPARENCY. The public does not like being hoodwinked and some are only too susceptible to unfounded conspiracy theories or systematically promoted misinformation. The only antidote is transparency.

It is a key element in The Consultation Charter. We cannot expect stakeholders or the general public to spend their time in a dialogue if they suspect the information is inadequate. At worst, consultations can be declared unlawful by virtue of the Gunning Two principle, but not everyone can mount a claim for judicial review. More typically, consultees merely grumble that they are only being told a partial story, and that Managers (or Ministers) are not disclosing all that they might.

The coming weeks will test the openness of public bodies For example, in the NHS, there have been umpteen temporary changes to services. Where they appear to have worked satisfactorily, there will be a huge temptation to consolidate and to persuade local people that these should be made permanent. But many questions will arise. How will these new arrangements work when the NHS resumes its full range of services? Has the impact on various communities been fully explored and considered? Are there knock-on effects or unintended consequences to consider? If Managers cut corners, and seek approval without the fullest disclosure, trouble lies ahead.

Similarly, the resumption of local authority services, schools, social care and a host of other activities will prompt similar questions, and a public that is alive to the news stories of the day will be sceptical. After this week’s shenanigans, will those most disadvantaged by changes to public services wonder whether everyone is being dealt with fairly? Is there, to quote a common theme heard this week, one rule for the many and another, less rigorous one for the few?

Elsewhere this week, Stephen Hill has discussed the relationship between consultation and trust in The Week in Parliament. The role of transparency is as a key enabler of trust. Without it, trust will not develop.

To summarise, the Cummings story shows what happens when public institutions appear reluctant to spell out what happened. It was seen having the information dragged into the public domain – like the proverbial pulling of teeth from an unwilling patient. Timely and transparent disclosure has to be the mantra for anyone involved in public engagement and consultation.

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’.

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