Published on September 2, 2011

Less involvement -more consultation?

By Edward Andersson

Edward Andersson is European Associate for Involve and an established expert on methods of participatory decision making. He set up Participationcompass.org – one of Europe’s leading public engagement sites, and has advised a number of organisations on public engagement strategies, including the Home Office, the European Commission, the OECD, WHO Europe, UNDP Turkey and numerous Local Authorities and Health Trusts.

Picture of a notebook

Edward Andersson reflects on what the new version of the Best Value Statuary Guidance means for engagement and consultation.

The government has now developed its new Best Value Statutory Guidance  to replace the 2008 statutory guidance “Creating Strong, Safe and Prosperous Communities”. The new guidance is a very short document and the government has retained its intention to repeal the Duty to Involve.

The consultation on this a few months back prompted vigorous debate on our blogs here, here and here as well as on the wider web  . In large part this was because the government proposed to repeal the 2009 Duty to Involve.

The guidance is only two pages long. It does cover a lot of ground in those two pages. For those who worried that the government was intending to roll back engagement completely there is encouraging news; the document does mention the 1999 Duty to Consult and expresses that “Authorities must consult representatives of council tax payers, those who use or are likely to use services provided by the authority, and those appearing to the authority to have an interest in any area within which the authority carries out functions. Authorities should include local voluntary and community organisations and small businesses in such consultation. This should apply at all stages of the commissioning cycle, including when considering the decommissioning of services.”

Davy Jones has written a good blog on what the Guidance says on engagement; including the full text of the law which is very useful.

Personally I’m worried by where the guidance takes us, purely from an involvement and engagement practitioner point of view.

  1. The first reason I worry is that the document has a very limited focus on commissioning and service delivery. This is marked shift from the previous guidance, which had a more holistic approach to engagement. In the new guidance citizens and civil society groups are expected to engage on decisions around spending and services and not much else. Our Pathways through Participation research has stressed that people are interested in many more issues than these.
  2. The second reason I worry is to do with language. We are moving from a duty to involve to a duty to consult. The full name of the duty to involve was actually the “duty to inform, consult and involve”. In the many discussions I had with people a few months back the general consensus was that a duty to inform makes sense, is enforceable and doesn’t really have any downsides. A duty to involve is useful in setting out an aspiration but is not very enforceable. A duty to consult however carries with it real risks: it could easily lead councils to consult on everything regardless of whether decisions have already been made or not. This is a recipe for consultation overload, cynicism and a devaluing of consultation more broadly.

As a result I’m concerned that we soon will no longer have a duty to involve but a duty to consult. It may seem like a slight shift, but I think it may matter.

I’d like to see government as a whole shifting more towards ongoing, relationship driven engagement, as opposed to short term, one off issues driven consultation. I don’t think this new guidance does this. It does say that “authority should actively engage the organisation and service users as early as possible before making a decision” and hopefully they will make use of the excellent Engagement Cycle to make sure that consultations around commissioning are part of an ongoing dialogue as opposed to one off effort. Realistically though I do worry that a narrow duty to consult may mean more last minute rubber stamp consultation and less of what we actually need: genuine dialogue between public services and the people that use them in a locality.

That’s my take on it; I’d be very interested to hear your views on the government’s new guidance.

 

 

Image: Alviman via MorgueFile

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