Exit from Lockdown: are stakeholders being heard?
If you are a representative group of some sort, a trade association or part of the Third sector, this is especially for you.
The weeks and months that lie ahead will require Government departments, regulators, local authorities and public bodies of all kinds to take decisions that may have far-reaching consequences for the livelihoods of people and the interests of a wide variety of stakeholders. These are difficult judgements to make and are a genuine challenge for Ministers, civil servants and for local leaders and officials. The issues are discussed in Institute Briefing Paper 38 Exit from Lockdown: the case for consultation
In normal times, many of these decisions might be subject to consultation of some kind. This is no guarantee that decision-makers will necessarily agree with your view, but at least you have the opportunity to express it. Right now, decisions are coming thick and fast and the first that some stakeholders hear about proposed changes that matter to them is when stories are reported in the media. It can happen even with statutory consultations, but though one Trade Association won a High Court case when it missed out on a consultation (The Blind & Shutter Association case – discussed here) in general, stakeholders must keep their eyes and ears open. In theory, decision-makers should identify the key stakeholders and approach them. In practice, it is often up to the stakeholder organisation to be visible and ensure it is consulted.
In the current frenetic environment, the rule-book is only partly of use. Few decision-makers can run a traditional twelve-week consultation – but they know they need to have some form of dialogue with those who are affected. Without engaging them, they may make dreadful mistakes. Civil servants and officials are not always the best judges of the impact of changes on the ground. After all, a major rationale for consultation is that decision-makers can become better informed about the likely implications of what they propose. It’s only possible if those most closely affected can be successfully engaged in the process.
It will be very tempting to cut corners, or to work in secret. It may be quick, but it is unfair and full of risks: For example,
- How do you decide who to involve, and who to exclude?
- Do some favoured stakeholders get a better hearing than others?
- Will it result in biased or prejudicial decisions, better for some than others?
Whether we talk about health and safety and workplace regulations, or a Council’s priorities for cycle lanes or car parking, the principle is the same. There must be a dialogue. If it is to be just informal engagement, or a properly structured consultation will probably depend upon the circumstances, but it DOES matter. With consultation, there are rules. The decision cannot have been predetermined; sufficient information must be provided, and the timescale must be adequate (though this will be interpreted generously in urgent conditions such as the Lockdown). Most importantly, however, the consultor must give the responses ‘conscientious consideration.’
These are the Gunning Principles, and they provide stakeholders with real safeguards against bogus consultations or just going-through-the motions. When a Department says it wants to consult you, there is certainty. You know that they have to do it properly, and if, for example, they fail to consider adequately the response to the consultation they could be legally challenged. In contrast, if you are approached for an ‘engagement’, be aware that none of these rules apply.
So if you have a significant interest in behaviour change that will affect your members or your industry etc, here are four items of advice which you might well consider:
- Try to anticipate the issues and urgently build relationships, so you know what decisions are going to be taken. Lobby to ensure you are involved.
- Seek a proper consultation wherever possible as you have no redress if your views are disregarded in a lesser form of engagement
- Prepare your case so that you can respond quickly and professionally. Whereas in an extended consultation, there is no penalty (and sometimes many advantages) to submitting late, when time is of the essence, the first to respond get the best hearing.
- Err on the side of transparency. Granted that there are times when quiet diplomacy is best, be willing and able to go public with your case at other times. If you need to generate public support, do so, and use media relations skills to communicate to a wider public.
The Consultation Institute promotes best practice in all forms of public and stakeholder consultations and seeks to provide support for both consultors and consultees. If both are aware of each other’s rights and responsibilities there is a better chance of a high-quality debate that focuses on the merits of the arguments and is not distracted by problems with the process.
The Exit from Lockdown will be painful and problematic for the next two years. The devil will be in the detail, and many stakeholder organisations will have a torrid time representing civil society or commercial interests, many of which will face damage and demoralisation. They owe it these people to ensure that their voice is heard, and one of the best possible ways will be to ensure a more consultative approach to decision-making.
For more information about ways in which the Institute can help, please get in touch.