Quiet calm deliberation…

Consultation as the antidote to frenetic political panic.

In 1889, Gilbert and Sullivan unveiled their comic operetta, The Gondoliers, and late in the second Act amid the mayhem of mistaken marriages, chaos and confusion comes a reflective quartet – a moment of sublime slow tempo waltz. 130 years later the words are strangely apposite:-

                                          In a contemplative fashion,

                                                And a tranquil frame of mind,

                                          Free from every kind of passion,

                                                Some solution let us find.

                                          Let us grasp the situation,

                                                Solve the complicated plot –

                                          Quiet, calm deliberation

                                                 Disentangles every knot.

 

This week, we publish The Politics of Consultation. It is, in part, a plea for better political and administrative decision-making, with more attention to gathering evidence and listening to the stakeholders affected. We are concerned about the forces that drive the dumbing-down of debate and the apparent preference for slogans and spin rather than the force of argument.

Consultation is an important safeguard as it obliges public bodies and politicians to consider a range of opinions and assess such evidence, as consultees can offer on a given proposal. It costs money and takes time – two resources decision-makers find hard to make available. Yet we know that speed is often the enemy of good policy-making and that high-quality engagement can prevent or minimise a whole range of blunders.

Political turbulence inevitably hampers decision-making. This is as true for local councils, or public bodies, as for government departments. Lack of continuity, different styles of leadership, changed policy priorities are all evident. The upheavals of this week are not the first nor will be the last time such a hiatus happens. A strategy that lurches from one extreme to another, a compromised ‘direction of travel’ and contradictory messages are all symptoms of instability. Oh, for some calm amongst the panic!

In the wider world, people mistrust the Westminster bubble. They have their own lives and their own interests to defend. What matters are the decisions taken that affect them or the money provided to fund the public services they need. Society is becoming more participative and a growing number of our citizens would like to influence those decisions. They need reassurance that the processes of democracy provide them with the right to be heard and the right to influence.

In examining the relationship between such public dialogues and the sources of political power, what struck us was how often we get it right. There is an established set of rules and failure to meet them invites legal challenges and the Courts have, from time to time, been bold enough to hold even the most arrogant ministers or council leaders to account. These rules now need updating and politicians themselves need to learn how best to use public consultation.

In all the hurly-burly of ministerial resignations and leadership challenges, what matters is that good decisions are taken and that they take account of informed opinion. Consultation is a measured process that relies on the force of argument, but it only works if it is undertaken to certain standards. In The Politics of Consultation, we consider various ways of regulating public consultation and enforcing those standards. One thought is to legislate – introduce a consolidating Act of Parliament that brings all the myriad legal obligations to consult onto a common basis. Another is to create another Ombudsperson. Yet another idea is to create an Office of Public Engagement as an independent body that could set standards and act as a watchdog for their enforcement – a little like the Office of Budgetary Responsibility. It could possibly adjudicate swiftly, but fairly, on disputed consultations.

They all have advantages, but what we really need is a better consultation culture – eliminating the flakiness that accompanies some existing practices. We have therefore sought to devise a simple framework of duties and rights that avoids the legalese of the Gunning Principles and can be used as effective tests of best practice by those charged with organising consultations. We do not expect the duties we place on consultors to raise too many eyebrows. But rights for consultees? That is definitely new.

We need to replace hasty, knee-jerk decision-making with more considered, more mature machinery. Gilbert may have exaggerated somewhat. So we will settle for:

 Quiet, calm deliberation

Disentangles quite a lot of knots

But, maybe not all.

TRIGGER POINTS

  1. There are many excellent recordings of this song from The Gondoliers on YouTube. Just search for ‘In a contemplative fashion’ The Derby G & S production at Buxton in 2009 gives you some vintage Gilbert dialogue before the Quartet starts.
  2. The Politics of Consultation is formally launched on Thursday 12th To pre-order a copy, please visit our Publications page.
  3. To coincide with the publication, Institute Associates are gearing up to provide additional help and support to clients on the political dynamics of specific public consultations.

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” – still the only major book on public consultation, and has delivered over 300 training courses and Masterclasses. He is a prolific writer on the subject, having written over 300 different Topic papers and over 20 full Briefing Papers for the Institute. Since 2003 over 12,000 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 the NHS.

Read more about Rhion

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