The current government has a commendable instinct to admit that it isn’t expert in everything; that the public may be in a better position to solve a problem and have knowledge that ministers don’t.
We saw this with the Spending Challenge and Your Freedom public consultations last year. Both of these sprang from what I believe was a genuine desire to do things differently. Both could, and should, have been successful because they were trying to identify information that was distributed across the population – poor government spending and ridiculous laws respectively. However, both ultimately failed to deliver anywhere near their full potential and have probably in the long run increased public cynicism about the government’s motives for engaging citizens more generally.
Well, the government is at it again. Speaking on behalf of Business Secretary Vince Cable, Business and Enterprise Minister, Mark Prisk has picked-up the baton and identified another area where government would benefit from the wisdom of citizens. But, the government appears to be making exactly the same mistakes as it did last year.
In a speech to the Federation of Small Businesses in Liverpooltoday, Prisk announced a consultation to better understand how regulations impact on business. There are over 21,000 such regulations and so the government has very sensibly decided to post the regulations in themes over a period of time. By doing this the government is making it easier for individuals and businesses to find regulations they might be interested in and comment.
However, I believe there is much more that the government needs to get right if it is to get the most out of this exercise and avoid accusations of running a sham consultation.
First, the government needs to be clear about why it is consulting. Is it consulting to identify regulations that most harm business, to identify those that annoy the greatest number of people, to build a consensus about which should be scrapped, or for some other reason? All of those objectives are legitimate, but will require the government to engage in very different ways. It’s difficult to achieve all of them, and impossible for people to engage effectively if they don’t understand why the government is consulting.
The Spending Challenge received over 100,000 individual ideas. This deregulation consultation appears to tap into the same wellspring of public dissatisfaction and so it is reasonable to assume that large numbers will be received. This raises the question of how the government is going to make the choices about which ideas to take forward and which not. At the moment there are no clear criteria and the risk is that people will submit ideas that are perfectly reasonable from their perspective, but make no sense from the government’s perspective. The act of ignoring most suggestions (because this will inevitably be the case) without the public understanding the criteria, by which choices are being made, will further undermine the public’s confidence in such consultations.
I would argue therefore that although the government is right to be transparent about the regulations it is considering scrapping, it needs to be just as transparent about the process it will use to choose which of the public’s ideas to implement and which to ignore.
There are a number of technical issues related to running this sort of engagement process online, but I’ll restrict myself to addressing just one. Campaign and lobby groups are very adept at mobilising supporters around specific issues. How is the government going to ensure that highly rated ideas have popped up to the top on merit and not just because they have an efficient lobby behind them? This kind of gaming can be prevented very easily as this simple site asking people to rank scenic photos of the UK shows.
There is a wider, final point that needs to be made. This is a consultation aimed at business people. This makes sense; they are the very people who deal with these regulations on a regular basis. The general public is not in a good position to identify regulations having an impact on the bottom line. However, the regulations exist for a reason. It is important to hear which regulations impact negatively on business. But just because this is true, and even if the majority of the people in a particular sector feel the same way, doesn’t mean the regulation is wrong. How is the government going to make the trade-off between the legitimate needs of business on the one hand, and the wider community on the other? If it the process of making this trade-off is done in the dark then, whatever choices it makes, the government risks being accused of getting it wrong; of either favouring business at the expense of community safety, or of not really understanding the needs of business.
I’ve written at length before about the power of public engagement, and what value it can add to decision-making. I believe that the government is right to consider this an area where genuine consultation can make a big difference. I just wish that they would follow what are really very simple rules for getting it right.
Photo credit: Suttonhoo