Spot-on: the ‘Times’ editorial on public consultations is correct

It is not every week that a major newspaper devotes an editorial to the role of public consultations in our democracy.

But last Thursday’s Times editorial did that under the banner headline ‘Government by consultation: inviting comment on a proposal is not the same as taking action.’

It was an overdue challenge to Ministers’ and Civil Servants with just criticism that too many consultations remain on the books, without any form of response to consultees or the public for months and years. Coincidentally, the Institute has been highlighting the same problem (See last week’s article – Late consultation output analysis by Government – is this the worst yet? )

It is hard to disagree with the Times: –

…There is nothing wrong with consultation. It is an essential part of the policy making process. Without it there would be no guarantee that those likely to be affected by new laws and regulations have a say in their creation. Consultations are useful even if all they do is show that new legislation is not needed. But those that are announced with fanfare only to be shelved, unfinished, are a different matter. They waste money, leave problems to fester and undermine trust in government … (The Times – 29th March)

The Times has conducted its own research. Paul Morgan-Bentley, its Head of Investigations at the paper estimates that 1,661 consultations have been launched by UK Ministers since the 2015 General Election, and that one in four of those begun before December 31st 2016 are still ‘analysing feedback’.  This confirms an Institute study that suggests that only a third of Whitehall consultations publish their feedback within the 12 weeks stipulated in the Government’s own consultation Principles.

In fact, there is a simple explanation for this woeful situation. And there is a simple best practice solution.

Feedback comes in two forms:-

Output – where the consultor publishes an analysis of consultee views – so that everyone understands the nature of the arguments and who is saying what.

Outcome – where the consultor explains the decisions it has taken.

Hundreds of organisations follow the Institute’s best practice advice – and keep these publications separate. Government departments often ignore this, preferring to wait until decisions have been taken, and are tempted to retrospectively justify their action by quoting from a consultation exercise. It is poor practice. Even when done perfectly honestly, it fuels speculation that the analysis has been biased in some way. We hear claims that instead of evidence-based policy-making, we have policy-based evidence-making.

There is another major weakness in Government practice.

Decisions can take a very long time – sometimes for good reasons. Delaying feedback means that consultees who may have devoted time and energy to responding are left totally in dark, unsure of what if any attention is being given to their views. We have often described this as the ‘black hole’ of consultation.

Both broadcast journalists and newspaper editors have been slow to put consultations under the microscope, but there is a hope that we can move the issue further up the agenda. The Times editorial certainly helps. As does a parallel story by Henry Austin of the Independent, reporting that the Commons Public Administration Committee may soon investigate.

 In the meantime, look out for The Politics of Consultation – which tackles this and similar issues in depth. Available in July!

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 400 training courses and Masterclasses and is a prolific writer on the subject, having written over 300 different Topic papers and over 40 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’.

Read more about Rhion

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