U-turns and consultation
Every Government changes its mind from time to time.
It could be a virtue – showing a responsive attitude and a degree of flexibility.
But it is more complicated than that.
In the UK, our political culture is ambivalent. We admire politicians who ‘stick to their guns’ (The lady is not for turning etc) and are steadfast in the teeth of criticism. But at the same time the media rejoices whenever it secures a change of policy from its campaigns. At other times, they portray U-turns as a sign of weakness.
Last weekend, The Times editorial listed the current Government’s many recent U-turns. It mentions:
- Mass-testing for coronavirus
- The NHS contact-tracing app
- Visa surcharge for foreign NHS workers
- Residency rules for families of foreign NHS workers who died of Covid-19
- Electronic voting in the House of Commons
- Re-opening schools in June
- Quarantine rules for UK residents returning from overseas
- Allowing Huawei to help build 5G
and it did not even mention Marcus Rashford!
The Times was no doubt inspired by the debacle surrounding ‘A level’ and GCSE results in England. In another article, we put the Ofqual’s consultation under the microscope Or it may have spotted another emerging U-turn over the wearing of masks in schools. Despite providing excellent copy for newspapers, The Times is clearly fed up with the frequency of policy summersaults. It concludes that the Government is ‘drifting into positions without having done the preparatory work by considering the consequences, testing alternatives and ‘rolling the pitch’ with the public.’ In short, it has not adequately consulted.
So what, really is the connection between U-turns and consultation?
U-turns can fall into several categories:
- Decisions driven by dogma and where no-one wants to entertain any dissenting opinions, until events prove the policy unviable or unenforceable. The classic text-book example will always be the Poll tax, as memorably recalled by Michael Portillo in the Institute’s Conference at the Emirates stadium in 2015!
- Decisions taken in a hurry where Ministers and officials had no time to consult widely and where they may have been over-influenced by one or more key stakeholders. It can be a hazardous and exposed position – indeed, Public Health England may have lost its independence because of its role in the decisions over testing for Covid-19.
- Decisions delegated below the radar or to bodies with different priorities and working practices. Aspects of the Windrush scandal were the result of the Home Office delegating the implementation of confused and contradictory policies to Border Force, UK Visas & Immigrations and other agencies whose mistakes had to be corrected – but much later.
- Decisions where consultation was minimal, but where implementation results in unforeseen complications and provokes pressure to change policy. The failure to re-open schools in June is an example of key stakeholders (local councils and teachers) not being convinced that the plans were practical.
- Decisions which were subject to consultation, but it either failed to highlight critical issues, or where politicians ignored what consultees were saying. Both scenarios feature in our analysis of the Ofqual consultation on ‘A levels’ and GCSEs.
The role of consultation varies. Sometimes one can speculate that it might have made all the difference. Sometimes not. No amount of dialogue can prevent politicians from making poor choices. But it can affect many other things. Colleagues and commentators are generally more forgiving of those whose enthusiasm carried them forward without engaging sufficiently, than they are of those who ignored cogent warnings from informed stakeholders. The cleverest ones know the value of building consensus behind important initiatives, and the role that good-quality consultations can play in that process.
Probably the wisest advice that this and other administrations can take if they want to avoid the gruesome headlines of newspapers bemoaning too many U-turns, is to be more cautious in making policy announcements in the first place. It is not weakness to say, “Subject to hearing your views, I would like to do such-and-such …” instead of the traditional macho-style strong leader pronouncements “I WILL do this.” For that to happen, we may need a change in the style of politics – something that does not look imminent.
However, 2020 has taught us all that we live in more uncertain world. Assumptions are far less solid, and huge shifts in public opinion and behaviour make it more difficult than ever to predict the outcome of decisions. The policy life-cycle is accelerating. There is less time to consult and also fewer opportunities to evaluate how things work out in practice. Things can go wrong faster, so mistakes can be penalised quicker too.
In such a climate, we probably need more consultation – not less. It might need to be more rapid, but no less robust.
For many in Government, that, of itself, is a U-turn!
Rhion H Jones
The Consultation Institute
27 August 2020