Sturgeon launches “a grown-up conversation” re lockdown exit options
Nowhere does the document use the word ‘consultation’.
But note what it says: “We are listening to the best scientific advice, but we recognise we must also listen to the views of the people across Scotland as we consider the options set out in this document.”
In our view, that’s consultation!
In her press conference, the Scottish First Minister said it was “incumbent on us to try to involve the public”. It is in marked contrast to the approach of UK Government Ministers, as Matt Hancock this morning went on Radio 4 to insist that it was sufficient just to outline their principles and leave it to those who know best to apply them.
One must sympathise with politicians trying to handle the most difficult crisis in living memory, and one of their dilemmas must be the extent to which they engage the public in debate. So much traditional communications theory revolves around the adage of “Say it loud; say it often.” And Downing Street has a fair number of leaders who found this an excellent tactic both in the EU Referendum and in the last general election.
Scotland has taken a different approach. In its own words, “Transparency and engagement is fundamental”. Of itself, there is very little new in the paper. Any assiduous follower of the daily press conferences in London and the BBC or Sky news coverage will have heard the various arguments expressed over-and-over. What the Scottish government has done is brought them all together in a coherent way and in something approaching a solid framework for taking decisions. There is less reliance on slogans like ‘listening to the science’ and less of a feeling that Ministers are making it up as they go along.
From a public engagement point of view, the key passage in the Scottish paper is this.
We will ask of each option, how does this impact on different groups in society – is it ethical, does it promote solidarity, does it promote equality and does it align with our legal duties to protect human rights?
… We will also assess options against broader considerations including how well any measures can be communicated and understood, how likely they are to be complied with, whether their impact on human rights is proportionate to the current level of risk, and their impact on different equality groups – as we know that both the virus and the physical distancing measures affect different groups in society in different ways.
Within these considerations, we will also assess the merits of tailoring options to, for example, specific geographies and sectors, or parts of the rural economy, or those able to work outdoors – but only if that is consistent with the aim of minimising overall harm and can be implemented effectively
(Section 4; page 13/14)
This is close to the Impact Analysis we expect to see in a properly-designed consultation – where the consultor shares its own analysis of the likely consequences of proposals or options and invites consultees to consider whether they agree with it. It is asking stakeholders what they think about these vital issues; not just telling them. If, as a result of this initiative, Ministers obtain a better insight of the views and preferences of the Scottish people, are they not in a better place both to take decisions – and to seek compliance with them?
Will the other devolved administrations and the London Government follow suit? Maybe they were planning to do so anyway and will view Edinburgh as having jumped the gun. There is, however, no harm in setting a strong lead, for more mistakes happen by delay and obfuscation than by being bold and transparent.
The Scottish paper is worth reading, for public engagement and consultation professionals will find a good document, well-written, persuasively argued and avoiding the condescending tone of so many consultation papers. Remember that it is not promoted as a consultation, so a Gunning Principles challenge in the Courts is neither likely nor sensible. And applying the rules strictly could stretch matters a little.
Despite this, the Scottish government has, in essence, taken the consultative road. It says
In acting in an open and transparent way we will explore new ways to engage with the public as this pandemic progresses.
If it keeps its word, it will certainly deserve our support.