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Is consultation a defence against the ‘dumbing down’ of debate?

On 12th July, the Institute publishes The Politics of Consultation. Each week till then, Rhion Jones and Elizabeth Gammell discuss issues raised in the book.

In his excellent book on political language, Enough Said, Mark Thompson, ex-Director-General of the BBC discusses the trend towards shorter, less detailed coverage of public affairs. He blames America. He describes how the pressure for relentless, high-octane 24-hour news began there and required everything to be shorter, punchier and more exciting to watch.

To seasoned veterans of BBC Radio 4 channel this has all been a bit much and they condescendingly refer to it as ‘dumbing down’ of debate. The other phrase you may hear refers to the ‘tabloidisation of the news.’ This is intended to be an insult, but communications specialists and many journalists would defend the trend as being far more accessible to large parts of the general public.

The modern soundbite places a great premium on the memorable phrase – or the ability to condense a complicated argument into roughly 20 seconds.

This is a far cry from the kind of engagement we seek in a public consultation. It begs a number of questions about the kind of dialogue we hope to achieve over the kind of proposals that commonly go to consultation. Is it possible to have a meaningful conversation with stakeholders about a complex restructuring of hospital services using shorthand methods? Can one comment on Government policies without having a detailed discussion?

Probably not, but remember that consultation has always been a multi-level process. Well-designed exercises have always allowed for a parallel process of general principle dialogues with some people and more detailed debates with others.

What is important is to ensure that the details ARE covered…somewhere. That, according to the well-proven saying is where ‘the devil’ can be found. And if we were to design a consultation where that level of information was missing, not only would stakeholders be rightly upset but it would also be declared unlawful by the High Court.

Maybe we should give thanks that English common law provides a remedy if consultation fail to stick to the rules. In other words, what guards against excessive ‘dumbing down’ of debate are the Judges in our Courts. They are saying, in effect, that a failure to hold a meaningful debate with all the relevant information on the table will render decisions unlawful – and they will be quashed.

Politicians are ambivalent about this. In opposition they rejoice at the discomfiture of Ministers who have tried to cut corners. In office, they are less sure. Debate is not as welcome if your policies struggle to withstand informed scrutiny.

In The Politics of Consultation, we argue that social media, 24-hour news and the need to sloganise everything in sight poses an existential threat to evidence-based policy-making.

There are signs that senior people in public bodies, Local Authorities and civil servants are well aware of the threat. It is possible that this is why we are actually witnessing a record number of high-profile consultations. Maybe they see in the febrile atmosphere that cascades down from a BREXIT-preoccupied Government that important policy decisions must not be denied the kind of detailed consideration that only a consultation provides.

It confirms the truism that consultation itself is an admirable process and only becomes problematic when politics intrude. It always does – and that is why the issues we raise in The Politics of Consultation need considerable study.

Institute members will be given opportunities to order The Politics of Consultation at a discount and ahead of the publication date.

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