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Everyone a winner!

Engagement, consultation and Levelling-up

It is often thought that there is no need to consult about good news. Only bad news.

Consultation, presumably is thus seen as a safeguard for those whose interests are threatened; a requirement for fairness before rights or services are taken from them.

So, is the ‘levelling-up’ idea a reason for unalloyed rejoicing as good news? The Prime Minister certainly thinks so, and his July 15th speech is a tour de force of optimism. How can anyone disagree?

Maybe outright opposition will be hard to find. More prevalent is a weary and widespread scepticism. The Johnson penchant for hyperbole, colourful language and exaggerations may indeed irritate the ‘elite’ (that miscalculated once before!), but beneath it all is a serious argument trying to get out, and one that raises interesting questions about the extent to which the public should be consulted.

Stated simply, the PM’s argument is that ‘levelling-up’ is an idea whereby everyone benefits. It is counter-intuitive. Those of us with long experience of public consultations have become accustomed to a world where there are generally winners and losers. On this occasion, we are told that this is not the case. Everyone wins. To illustrate his message, Johnson refers to the precedent of East Germany where billions were poured into its economy and social infrastructure and achieved a twenty-year miracle of ‘levelling-up’ the reunited country.

Leaving aside the special factors that make this a questionable exemplar, let’s concede that not every gain for a ‘left behind’ area has to be at the expense of somewhere currently more prosperous.

It may therefore make little sense to consult on whether a particular investment should go to South Shields or South Mimms. Maybe a more pertinent question is whether the immediate priority is to spend on vocational education, a better hospital, a face-lift for the High Street, alleviating road congestion or a subsidised manufacturing plant related to electric cars of wind turbines…

The difficulty of ‘levelling-up’ is that it is not a single decision/policy/programme of action (per the Institute’s definition of consultation). In the PM’s vision, it is wider than any programme; it amounts to a generational aspiration – even a culture change. It is quite a challenge to consult people on such a slippery concept, partly because it means too many things to too many different people. And whatever they thought it was, many of them voted for it!

A clear proposal to enable or build something or to change a current practice, is a reasonable issue upon which to consult. A wider philosophy is harder to engage upon. The Government will probably claim that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. But it is the parts and only the parts that the public mostly sees.

One has to be very clever to consult on a proposal whose principal virtue may be that it is part of a wider whole. Stakeholders probably work on a shorter timescale than Governments, even though the latter are frequently criticised for short-termism. Consultation is inevitable (and is a legal requirement) for major projects, and even though the underlying logic may have wide acceptance, there will always be arguments about the detail. Even if everyone is a winner in the grand scheme of things, there may be vigorous debate and even opposition at the individual project level.

This is why, we assume, the Government seems intent on engaging everyone in a debate on the concept. Despite the inevitable critique of Boris Johnson’s style and the swashbuckling over-exuberance of his speeches, the aim is to influence expectations and inspire confidence in the forthcoming, fragmented menu of bits and pieces. Unfortunately, many of these items will emanate from different Government departments or agencies – each with variable approaches to consultation. And many proposals will come from local authorities, not all of which are Conservative and may not be rushing to give the PM credit for any improvements that are made. Should there be a standard ‘template’ for levelling-up consultations? Or a specific set of standards? The Institute could certainly help with some ideas.

The biggest danger to ‘levelling-up’ is that reduced resources oblige a form of rationing that brings about some ‘levelling-down’. The public might well take its revenge on politicians who only talked about the upside.

In summary, therefore;

  • The public, business and community stakeholders can expect a barrage of engagement initiatives to persuade them of the virtues and practicalities of  ‘levelling-up’
  • In doing this, Government and its agencies will encounter difficulties, and stoke fears, real or imagined as well as build expectations – even if we are all winners in the end.
  • There will be a real challenge for those organising consultations on the component parts of the programme.

 

TRIGGER POINTS

  1. Boris Johnson’s speech – as delivered – can be found here.
  2. Just over a year ago, the ‘good news’ was lifting lockdown restrictions. In the current circumstances, it is interesting to recall what we wrote at that time – on a similar theme – https://www.consultationinstitute.org/if-its-good-news-do-we-still-need-to-consult/
  3. As one example of the challenges ahead, the creation of new NHS Integrated Care Boards in England is likely to lead to many consultation exercises seeking to standardise different services in a wider geography. Will this be ‘levelling up’ or levelling down’?
  4. Will your organisation find using the term ‘levelling-up’ useful as being recognisable and self-explanatory, or problematic because of its political overtones and imprecision?

 

This is the 371st  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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