Published on August 28, 2012

Involve’s take on the new principles

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.

In the second of a three part series about the new Government Consultation Principles, Edward Andersson writes about Involve’s reaction to these new principles.

In my previous post I looked at initial reactions to the Cabinet Office’s new Consultation Principles. In this post I will provide some Involve commentary.

Like many other guidance rewrites under the current government the new Consultation Principles are much shorter than the document they replace (See for example the debate around the Best Value Guidance and Duty to Involve). The Consultation Principles are three pages long; they replace a code of conduct which ran to thirteen pages. So on the count of saving on paper and printing costs the new Principles are an improvement. What of the content –what have they had to cut out in order to shorten the document?

The principles contain important guidance that Involve and many others have called for over the years; including a focus on real engagement and not tokenism, an acknowledgement that consultation is not always appropriate and an expectation that consultation will be done early and in a proportionate manner. This marks a move away from a more rigid ‘one size fits all’ approach –an approach which has led to a spree of court cases in recent years.

One of the most controversial changes is that the new principles do away with the ’12 week rule’ which previously stated that “Consultations should  normally last for at least 12 weeks with consideration given to longer timescales where feasible and sensible”. The new statement says timeframes should be “proportionate and realistic” and might “typically vary between two and 12 weeks”.

The problem with the old definition was that Civil Servants became hung up on the 12 weeks as an absolute law. The new version does away with some of the rigidity but insidiously 12 weeks has ceased to be a minimum and will now be perceived by many to be a maximum. It is true that there are many cases where a shorter consultation process is possible –but for 2 weeks to be a meaningful consultation period there has to have been substantial engagement in advance and the stakeholders need heads up as to when to expect the consultation.

Worryingly I think many civil servants will not read it this way. A strong argument for the 12 week minimum rule previously was that membership groups need time to consult with their local branches and members before submitting a formal response. A shorter period is likely to lead to more rushed and less considered responses.

I like where the principles place their emphasis: tailoring the consultation to the relevant participants and issues, providing easy to understand information, making sure that departments make clear how previous feedback taken into consideration, the importance of clear objectives and cross- departmental collaboration.

I can see where the principles have come from –consultation is often done as a tick box exercise, following a formalistic process, for unclear reasons and with little feedback. The two and a half year Pathways through Participation research project interviewed over 100 citizens and we did not find one of them who had a positive experience of formal consultation. Clearly there are massive problems with consultation today, not least that it leaves citizens cynical, angry and disempowered. The new principles may play a role in responding to this.

However in cutting ten pages from the guidance the new Principles have missed off some important things that were covered in the Old Code of Conduct. A key thing that is missing is definitions of consultation, engagement and other terms.

The document is very up front about not being a ‘how to’ guide. The brevity does mean that it does little to define terms. The statement “Consultation is part of wider engagement” is true but without explanation and backing information the advice may go unheeded.

The New Consultation Principles also do not mention the importance of deliberative dialogue when engaging on complicated issues. Given the good work done by Sciencewise and other parts of Government with these types of methods it seems a shame that civil servants looking for advice on how to consult aren’t signposted.

On a very fundamental level a key problem with the principles is that they solely focus on consultation and fail to encourage or support civil servants who want to engage citizens in decisions at an earlier stage or where civil servants might wish to devolve power to citizens directly.

The Consultation principles are not very inspiring and there is a risk they will encourage more of the same from government.

There are two areas where the Code of Conduct on Consultation provided structure which the new Principles do not mention. The Code required each consultation to provide a standard table of basic information so that citizens and stakeholders could quickly see if the consultation was relevant to them. Under the Code each department also had to appoint a Consultation Coordinator who would provide advice on how to consult as well as coordinating the consultation across the departments. I’d be interested to hear from Civil servants and those who responded to many consultations –have you found the Consultation Coordinators and standard table of basic information useful? Will you miss them or are they just another bureaucratic add on?

Since the new principles for all their virtues do not tell civil servant HOW to engage and consult I thought that I’d list some of the best ‘how to’ guides out there next week. If you have suggestions for guide guidance on consultation and engagement please comment below.

Image by: Mark Black

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