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Figuring out the impact

The big unknown … and how to address it

Cast your mind back about 24 hours.

You represent a major industry organisation, a trade association, big charity, a professionals’ body or even a local authority. You’re pen poised – or keyboard at the ready to respond to Jeremy Hunt’s announcement. You’ve promised your Comms team you’d have a ‘reaction statement’ within hours of the announcement. You’re watching the TV; you’ve heard what’s said.


The easy bit is if you’ve lobbied for specific outcomes. If they have been heeded (like the NHS receiving the money it asked for), you breathe a sigh of relief and welcome the news. If your requests have gone unheeded, (as with Northern Powerhouse Rail) you voice your lamentations and warn of dire consequences.

Except that – for many of those reacting … you simply DON’T KNOW

In fact, there’s a long tradition with Budgets that early favourable reaction turns sour a few days later. Remember the tax proposed on Cornish pasties? It takes a while for people to digest the news and try to work out their consequences. Or maybe read between the lines and look for those implications that weren’t spelt out, like, in this case, the 12p per litre projected rise in petrol duties next Spring.

So, to test this theory, I have just read about 20-30 reaction statements from a wide variety of organisations, ranging from the thrilled to the terrified. Some are quite specific. James Jameson, on behalf of the Local Government Association, whilst a little relieved it wasn’t worse, warned that “vital services such as social care, planning, waste and recycling collection & leisure centres continue to face an uncertain future.” The Campaign for Better Transport regretted that the Chancellor didn’t cancel “a small number of highly damaging road building schemes.”

In the main, however, the word that best describes the swathe of reactions is CAUTION. Organisations are frankly hedging their bets. And that is because they simply are not sure. Typical holding statements include that from the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), who, said it was “not clear where this leaves special educational needs and post-16 provision which are both facing extraordinarily difficult financial circumstances”.

Those of us who have championed and encouraged better public engagement and consultation know from experience that one of the most challenging tasks is to devise and publish Impact Assessments. Clear statements of expectation. What is most likely to happen. They are needed to facilitate an informed debate, or in Gunning Two language, to secure ‘intelligent consideration’. We read some of them and are impressed by the thoroughness of approach and analysis; others are little more than wet fingers in the air. The Chancellor’s Thursday statement had neither; there wasn’t any. Maybe understandable as there are dozens of impacts from countless decisions and proposals.

Let’s take one example – the announcement of a review of Integrated Care Boards in England, to be led by Patricia Hewitt. They have hardly been there five minutes, and the Government yet again can’t resist the temptation to tinker. What will be the impact on those that have only just been appointed? Or on those about to take roles with ICBs? Will it divert them from mission-critical tasks? And will the result be even more changes – and institutional instability?

Ah … instability! Is that really the word of the week?

The Government may feel it has calmed the financial markets, but has inevitably destabilised public services, energy sources, infrastructure projects, housing markets and of course most people’s personal finances, plans and aspirations. And the problem is that it will take months of dialogue to figure out what the impacts truly will be. Only at local levels, or at service delivery points is it possible to work out the REAL implications, and probably by sitting down with those who actually deliver those service and those who are customers for the services. Likewise, those who devise a policy and stakeholders who are affected by them.

Whether we call it consultation may not matter too much. Might it be co-production? Is it community engagement? Ultimately what matters is that those with the best experience and those with most insight into the consequences of changes to funding or processes are together exchanging their views and figuring out the likely impacts.

Here, we are all going to have to raise our game, and the Consultation Institute is poised to help its members and others focus on this important area.

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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