Finally…food for thought!

How seriously are we considering the VERY big issues?

Three years ago – with the Referendum aftershocks still resounding, we speculated whether the BREXIT planning period would usher in a period of fundamental re-thinking about all those issues that might be affected by the decision to leave the UK. We wondered whether we would see more and better consultations as the Government sought to carry people with them and seek a new consensus on many of the ‘wicked issues’ that had been untouchable, because decisions were taken at a Pan-European level.

We were not to know that the country’s divisions would be so deep and the in-fighting so vicious that few of the big issues have been exposed to the kind of consultations we envisaged. The one big one – on social care – that Theresa May was obliged to announce in hasty retreat from an ill-prepared Manifesto commitment – is still awaited. The policy wind has been so sucked out of the sails of Whitehall departments by the BREXIT stasis that very few of the problems facing our nation has been made subject to open debate by consultation. The one exception was in DEFRA, where Michael Gove’s tenure of office will be remembered for having asked more thought-provoking questions than providing the answers. From plastic straws to air quality or bottle deposit schemes, the Department consulted enthusiastically.

So the consultation that caught the eye the week that Gove left his job and Boris Johnson became PM, was about a National Food Strategy. This is meant to be an ‘overarching strategy’ by which Ministers mean something that cuts across several Government departments. It declares that it will influence several current policies or Bills. So it mentions, the Department of Business & Energy’s Industrial Strategy, the Department of Health’s Childhood Obesity Plan, DEFRA’s proposed Environment Bill as well as the Agriculture Bill and the Fisheries Bill, are now in the Parliamentary process. Quite a tall order. The consultation is branded as a Call for Evidence and, a sure sign that the Government is serious, the whole Strategy has a big-name figurehead – in this case, Henry Dimbleby – co-founder of the successful Leon restaurant chain.

So – what do we make of this consultation? Is it a long-overdue launch of a necessary cross-cutting dialogue that can seek to square some of the potentially contradictory policies? Or is it yet another public relations exercise, designed to assuage various campaigners and stakeholders? Lack of decisive progress in developing forward-looking public policy has worried many. Is this a serious attempt to respond? Or just playing for time until the political situation stabilises?

Consultation practitioners are adept at reading between the lines of a consultation paper. From the call for Evidence, therefore, read these words:-

“The purpose of this call for evidence is to gather inspiration to help us transform our food system. We want to hear from anyone who has a good idea: producers, processors, retailers, consumers, academics, policy specialists, inventors, farm labourers, factory workers, health care practitioners, charity workers, or simply interested citizens.” 

“We are looking for ideas big and small. From government policies to simple practical things that make a difference in your community or your business. These might be things that are already working well, here or abroad, and that could be scaled up or used differently. Or they might be new ideas: things that haven’t been tried yet at scale, but which you think have the potential to improve the system. We would like to understand the rationale for your proposals and study the accompanying evidence.”  (Call for evidence – Overview)

 

You can read this in more than one way.

Is it a refreshing approach to almost anyone with a thought or two, rather than the traditional dialogue with the usual suspects?

Or does it merely reveal the relative lack of firm, well-developed proposals?

One wise old sage in the consultation business once described them as being of three kinds:

  • Where consultors have one idea and risk pre-determination …
  • Where consultors have some ideas and find consultation useful to test reactions
  • Where consultors have no idea, and use consultation just to figure out what to do

In which category should we place the Food Strategy consultation?

In one sense it does not matter. For despite being labelled a ‘consultation’, this is in fact a rudimentary form of Issues paper, except that there is little by way of narrative analysis and the online questionnaire is, in effect a single free-format space for explaining your ideas. These are almost wholly commendable in that they invite stakeholders to contribute ideas ahead of organisations developing their options. So full-marks to the Government on that score.

The downside is that the broader the issue, the greater the risk that it attracts so much material that it becomes almost impossible to analyse and absorb. Issues Papers work really well where the scope of the subject-matter is narrower and more manageable, and good as it is to see a genuine attempt at pre-consultation, the danger is that this exercise will simply generate an indigestible mountain of ideas and create expectations that will be challenging to fulfil.

For those who believe in evidence-based policymaking, such a ‘call for evidence’ is as essential as it is welcome. All will be published, and Dimbleby, we are told will be assisted by DEFRA and other departmental officials will help. They may be rather busy. And we will watch what happens?

TRIGGER POINTS

  1. To what extent has your organisation been able to tackle major issues despite the political uncertainty?
  2. Do you make good use of Issues Papers?
  3. Are you skilled at defining the most appropriate scope for Issues Papers and consultations?

This is the 350th 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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