Congratulations to the Consultation Institute (CI) on its first 10 years, guided by their indefatigably voluble programme director Rhion Jones. The conference to celebrate was called ‘A World that Listens?’. Note the question mark. Speaker Lord Bichard was very gloomy about the current government attitude to consultation and yearned for the days when government signaled its intentions in a green paper followed by a white and then a Bill. Now truncated consultations – if they were done at all – seemed to be the order of the day with initiatives that failed the evidence test and could only be seen as desperate efforts ahead of an election to get something on the books that voters like. This is not evidence-led policy making – mourned by Sir Stephen Sedley former Lord Justice of Appeal.
Private versus Public
He made clear the difference between the private and public sectors – the former needs to know what its customers need and how they experience their products and services. Consulting or researching (what is the difference? – discuss) customers is a must but it is voluntary. In the public sector, consultation is compulsory and defensive – concerned with demonstrating to the Lord Justice of Appeal and others of that ilk that they have not got it wrong. Politics is the art of persuasion and going out to consult is too often treated as an element in that process with argument and attitude towards evidence and the disruptive view being subordinated to the need to rush towards the statute book, while still hoping to avoid judicial review.
Politics and policy-led evidence
For me the most interesting part of the day was the contribution from two politicians – Simon Danchuk the current Labour MP for Rochdale and an old Labour Scottish warhouse Lord Des Browne. Danchuk has a background in social research translated into a hunger for evidence – evidence-led policy not policy-led evidence. For him the time when great ideologies clashed in bruising political battles was gone to be replaced by the essentially managerial challenges of running the complex organisation that is the state. Add to the social research experience, an experience of local government and you have a pragmatist interested in making things work on his patch – a thought that is absent from the minds of many central government representatives who have never run anything in their lives.
Lord Browne disagreed – chasing consensus through consultation was a chimera. The great challenges of our day remain profoundly political. Now we were in a position where the institutions of governance – for example on the world stage – were dysfunctional because they were set up long ago to meet political and economic circumstances such as the ruin of Germany and the bi-partite world of the Cold War which have now changed for good. It is politicians that need to solve that and they must regain the trust and room for manoeuvre that is essential in these new and challenging times. Consultation has a place in that but consultees must acknowledge the necessity both for compromise and clear decisions.
Public Confidence Eroded
The loss of trust in the political process has led to excessive resort to the law and the media in Rhion’s view. There is a confusion between fighting the substance of any issue and challenging the process. The world of consultation – now a global concern the World Bank speaker told us – can look chaotic. No more can dialogue with a demanding citizenry take place in neatly time-bounded lumps of 12 weeks or less – the conversation must be continuous.
New technologies such as social media have disrupted a managed, essentially closed game of structured consultations. Communities have leapt to the barricades and now public bodies are airing the arguments that they are having with each other. Are politicians happy to see consultations discredited – not interested in quality assured consultations: the new idea from CI?
Best practice consultation reflects self-confident governance processes run by organisations that are ready to share in an open and transparent environment. At a time when so many folk are dissatisfied with the way things are run, are we in danger of a vicious spiral whereby a sceptical and challenging citizenry/ electorate so frighten the governors that they increasingly deny their citizens the chance to participate, further undermining trust and confidence in the process? Can we go back to the old days of DAD? Decide; Advise; Defend.
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