Never boycott a consultation!
Earlier this week I met with campaigners who mentioned that they were minded to ‘boycott’ a consultation.
It does not matter where. Neither are the circumstances especially relevant. But the principle is an important one and consultees everywhere should think very carefully before advising their supporters to boycott a consultation.
It can be very tempting. You might feel that the exercise is dishonest – that the decision has already been made. You might suspect that the information being presented is all lies. And their timescale is unreasonable. You may have little or no faith in their willingness to consider your views. In short, they might fail on every test that the Gunning Principles require. You might know that, if the consultation were to be subject to a Consultation Institute Quality Assurance – that it would fail at the first hurdle. So why connive at such poor practice?
The answer is that it is better to shout loudly and complain rather than stay silent. Even if the consultor is merely going through the motions, the exercise gives people an opportunity to express their views. If you think they are asking the wrong questions, tell them. If you believe their facts are wrong, dispute them. If you worry that your arguments will not be heard, promote them in the media – or demand a personal hearing.
Consultees probably need to toughen up their stance towards unsatisfactory consultations. In a few weeks, the Institute will be publishing The Politics of Consultation, written with Elizabeth Gammell. In it, we propose a new set of duties for consultors, and rights for consultees. We should have developed these years ago, for we need to equip consultees with the confidence and the capability to question and challenge consultations that fall short of best practice. Maybe they need to demand an independent Quality Assurance when they suspect that public bodies and others are tempted to cut corners. Or perhaps they should be more willing to use the media to publicise their dissatisfaction.
What is NOT a good idea, however is to boycott the exercise. That leaves the consultor able to say that it has analysed the input expressed and truthfully report critical views only if they arrive. You can criticise the approach outside the consultation itself as much as you like, but only if you express it within the exercise does the consultor have to report it and comment on what you say.
Right now, the Help Refugees charity is preparing to go to the Court of Appeal seeking to overturn a High Court decision on the Alf Dubs amendment – allowing into Britain a number of child refugees from the Calais encampment. The argument turned on the adequacy of the Minister’s consultation with local authorities. One of the problems, was that Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) had advised its member Councils not to participate in the exercise. Maybe not a boycott in the normal sense of the word, but the result was equally predictable – enabling the consultor to make a decision without the benefit of knowing the views of those it sought to consult. Bad idea.
One hesitates to say ‘Never’, but it is hard to envisage a case where it is best not to tell decision-makers what you want them to hear. “I told you so” may not be a very edifying sentiment. But maybe “I never bothered to tell you” is even worse!