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Recovery roundtables: Consultation or con-trick?

Having highlighted disappointed stakeholders, frustrated at the lack of consultation in the Lockdown Exit period, it is right to record that the announcement, yesterday, by the Business Secretary appeared to provide a positive response.

Commentators agreed that Alok Sharma’s initiative reflected an attempt to step up his Department’s efforts to involve business leaders in policymaking, as officials look at how to stimulate the economy as it emerges from the pandemic. The Press Release promised to publish the names of those invited to attend, so there is some hope for transparency, and there is also an intriguing suggestion that ‘Other parties will also be able to input into the working groups through written submissions’.

There will be five Roundtables:-

  • The future of industry: How to accelerate business innovation and leverage private sector investment in research and development
  • Green recovery: How to capture economic growth opportunities from the shift to net zero carbon emissions
  • Backing new businesses: How to make the UK the best place in the world to start and scale a business
  • Increasing opportunity: How to level up economic performance across the UK, including through skills and apprenticeships
  • The UK open for business: How to win and retain more high-value investment for the UK

Press release: Business Secretary launches working groups to help unleash Britain’s growth potential 8th June 2020.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with these topics. Indeed, one can argue that no responsible Government should determine such strategies without this kind of stakeholder involvement. Deciding the strategy for these issues is not a short-term discussion. Those involved may need to commission or review relevant research or seek specialist modelling input. They need time to allow proper deliberation. At another time, some of these would have warranted a Royal Commission or similar – rightly criticised for taking minutes and also taking years. So much depends upon how they are run. Here are a few questions:-

  • Who decides who is around the table?
  • What is the balance between academics and business leaders?
  • From business, will those attending (presumably ‘virtually’ to begin with) be the head honchos or operational people who actually run their businesses?
  • From academia, will they be chosen according to research specialism or political leanings?
  • Is there a resourced secretariat?
  • Who controls the agenda?
  • Is there an independent facilitator?
  • Will they publish the proceedings?

There will be many more.

Let us try another analysis. How would they stack against the Gunning Principles?

Gunning One – Pre-determination

These are not blank sheets of paper. At the General Election, every political party offered a vision of some kind on these issues, and in some cases, very definite policy proposals. That does not invalidate the consultation, provided everyone is clear what has – and what has not been decided.

Gunning Two – Sufficient information

If properly resourced, these Roundtables should not feel under-informed, and having academic colleagues present should help. However, economic forecasting is as much of a black art, and as our recent experience of the scientists in SAGE  confirms, too much information can sometimes be as problematic as too little and may inhibit rather than promote consensus.

Gunning Three – Sufficient time

No-one yet knows if this is a short-term fix to the problem of perceived top-down decision-making and a lack of consultation. Or is it setting up a longer-term machinery – such as the mysterious Sector Working Groups? To provide meaningful output, these Roundtables probably need about a year. Will that happen?

Gunning Four – Conscientious consideration

The Press Release says The output from this initiative will feed directly into the government’s work on economic recovery and will help deliver the commitments we made to the British people only last December, which now take on an even greater sense of urgency and importance. A slight suggestion that this may, after all, be about delivering an agreed strategy rather than devising it. Okay – but back to Gunning One maybe?

It may be a little unfair to subject the initiative to this analysis, but it may help decide whether this is really serious listening, or just a worthy attempt to build better relationships and open up avenues of communication. Or will the more cynical see it as a glorified PR exercise, a confidence trick, designed for headline value more than any attempt to influence real decisions? Time will tell.

In the meantime, it is worth bearing in mind that in our book The Politics of Consultation  Elizabeth Gammell and I promote the idea of a Gunning Five principle – around consulting the right people. Until we see the names of those included in these Roundtables, who knows if they have struck a good balance between the various Stakeholders (remember the Institute’s Six tests). The issues matter not just to industry’s high-rollers but to millions of employees, their families and, of course, seldom-heard groups. One can make the case that Citizens Assemblies might be more appropriate for these subjects. Why cannot they be run alongside the dialogue of the experts?

Finally, effective though consultation on strategies may be, the needs of the moment may well be more about consultation on proposals. That queue of complainants bemoaning the lack of consultation by Government over the weekend were not in the main critical of Ministers’ strategies but of the various initiatives being taken to implement them.

So one or two cheers for Sharma’s announcement. It is at least part of what needs to be done. But let us hope that the media – and business itself pause and probe so as to take a critical view of what happens and urge the Business Secretary to do the listening job properly.

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’.

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