A manifesto commitment to better public engagement?
Rhion Jones proposes an Office of Public Consultation
Manifesto-writers will be busy this weekend.
If they follow previous form, they will commit to consult on many of their proposals that are – shall we say – a little unfinished. They will also probably make general noises about more transparent Government, and use words like ‘listen’ rather a lot.
But they could go much further, and seek to tackle the long-standing lack of trust in public engagement and consultation exercises. People just do not have confidence that a consultation is genuine, and no amount of Government Guidance or Principles removes that nagging doubt that Ministers and Civil Servants are just going through the motions.
A few years ago, there was similar scepticism surrounding economic forecasting. The solution was to create an independent body we now know as the Office of Budgetary Responsibility. It is far from perfect but if someone mistrusts the numbers – this is where they go.
We need something similar for public consultations. In the past, some have proposed a Consultation Ombudsman – somewhere to handle complaints about the design or implementation of a public consultation. It’s not a bad idea, but having an Office of Public Consultation is better.
- Whichever political party proposes this emphasises its Transparency credentials
- It would be a positive incentive for everyone organising a consultation to observe best practice
- It provides a better mechanism to consider complaints against consultations. Going to the Courts is wasteful, costly, time-consuming, and unpredictable; indeed, it is often a complete lottery as lawyers vie with each other for ever more abstruse interpretations of the law.
Politicians regularly bemoan the diminishing regard with which they are held in public esteem. But they rarely take steps to address the issue. A commitment to establish an Office of Public Consultation would be easy to make and cheap to implement. At a stroke one could change the rules of engagement so that Ministers and public bodies are bound to take public consultation seriously.
Will anyone be brave enough to do it?