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Exit from Lockdown: making the case for consultation

Just hours before Boris Johnson unveils his exit plan, the time is right to make the case for consultation.

The Lockdown? It all happened so quickly. Italy, Spain and France are credited with having taken decisive action earlier, and, given the speed of the epidemic, two weeks may well have been a critical period, but for most UK residents, the climate of opinion changed with alarming speed, and within a week, Parliament passed the Coronavirus Act, with draconian powers to affect individual and corporate lives.

And it did so without any consultation. Most business and commercial bodies and most representative institutions were stunned into uncharacteristic acquiescence. Local authorities were caught completely unprepared. Only the NHS seems to have appreciated the challenge that lay ahead. Shame the protective clothing suppliers, and the test organisers were less prepared!

Today, the Institute publishes a Briefing paper – Exit from Lockdown: the case for consultation. In it, we argue that that the exit process is not a short-term issue. It will last about two years, and will not only affect individuals and businesses, but it will also affect public services of all kind. How exactly, is currently conjecture.

Every day, millions of people are discussing and expressing views about various aspects of Lockdown exit. Representative bodies and pressure groups are now at full throttle seeking to influence the shape of that exit. Broadcasters talk about it endlessly. Social media is full of it. None of this will stop once a government roadmap appears. In fact, it will almost certainly provoke more questions than answers.

Such public interest is, in many ways, commendable. But it is also like a pressure cooker and these voices – ranging from the cool, proficient lobbyist to the idiosyncratic householder with a grievance – need an acknowledged outlet. Few will ever take part in a consultation. But they need to see a signal that decision-makers concede that they do not have all the answers and that they wish to hear people’s views about what they propose. 

So are there such signals? Whilst the PM was in hospital, Ministers seemed terrified even to mention the word ‘exit.’ To the intense frustration of the media, they hid behind simplistic slogans and stuck to the notion of being ‘guided by the science’, and it took the Scots to break the silence and take the first tentative steps towards some form of dialogue. ( Sturgeon launches a grown-up conversation – April 24th) The Welsh followed suit, though neither amounted to much of a consultation. Many complained that they were more PR than participation.

Boris is not one to be upstaged by Edinburgh, so he changed gear with his first words once back in harness. “I want to serve notice now that these decisions will be taken with the maximum possible transparency”, he declaimed.

But there is a difference between consultation and transparency. You cannot have the former without the latter, but you can certainly tell people what you’re doing – and be open about it – without ever asking a single stakeholder’s opinion.

The truth is that when you have to act quickly, the population may accept some top-down decisions. But exit is going to take a long time. There may not be an infinite timescale, but there IS enough to enable a more consultative approach.

This week, the Scottish Government went further. On 5th May, it published a further document – this time with a respectable list of options. You can contribute your own thoughts via an online platform that enables registered users to submit their ideas. By Thursday morning it had received about 2000 comments, shown in moderated threads.

Okay, this is a somewhat limited form of consultation – and no-one expects Sturgeon and her Ministers to be avidly reading the likely avalanche of contributions. But it is an important step forward and suggests an administration that wants to listen – not just announce its decisions.

Meanwhile Government departments, Executive Agencies, Non-departmental public bodies, and, any day now, local authorities are scratching their heads about the immense range of inter-dependent issues that may involve short-term changes in behaviour or processes.

Let’s take just one example from the Education sector. OFQUAL has already consulted on consultation on “Exceptional arrangements for exam grading and assessment in 2020”, an exercise designed to deal with the problems brought about by the closure of most of the education system. It was conducted in the standard way and took place over two weeks in late April. Although far shorter than normal, provided the department was able to secure participation by all relevant key stakeholders and can show it had ‘due regard’ to the Equality Act requirements, the foreshortened timescale may just prove to have been acceptable.

These types of short-term consultations have a cascade effect. We picked this up being re-published by the Council for Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) in Northern Ireland – a long-term Institute client with a good consultation track record – as it sought to encourage involvement by its own stakeholders. When timescales are short, it is critical to publicise consultations really well.

Contrast this to the ham-fisted attempts last weekend to circulate ’privately’, a set of documents about proposed rules for workplaces as part of the Lockdown exit strategy. Instead of being open and publishing the proposals, it gave the Trades Union Congress (TUC) about a day to comment, and before long, the papers were leaked to the BBC and others. The TUC felt obliged to declare its opposition, and instead of being a well-managed process, the Government lost control of the agenda. One sympathises with hard-pressed civil servants being in a hurry, but this was probably not the best way to proceed.

As we move forward into a prolonged period of Lockdown exit, hundreds of public bodies will need to carry stakeholders and the public with them on difficult trade-offs. Making such decisions without having discussed the potential impacts through some form of consultative process will be a high-risk approach. Not only that. It will be morally wrong because the truth is that the pandemic has increased the socio-economic and other divisions in society. Never have we been so much in need of statutory safeguards like the 2010 Equality Act to ensure that decision-makers truly have ‘due regard’ to the implications of exit proposals on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society.

Exit from Lockdown: the case for consultation does not have all the answers, and we intend to follow-up with more detailed suggestions for both central government and local authorities. We see the case for an OFQUAL-style high-speed consultation, and in the paper, we float the idea of a Rapid but Responsible consultation blueprint which our members and clients might wish to consider. Such models will need local adaptation with experienced advisers to ensure legal and best practice compliance.

Of one thing, however, we can be certain. An imposed, top-down exit strategy with authoritarian We know best style rules and regulations will not work. People deserve to be consulted, and now is the time to make the case.

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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