Published on January 13, 2012

Time to think differently?

NHS Lanarkshire: supporting more effective consultation

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is a Senior Associate of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

All our experience tells us that recent changes by the European Commission to increase consultation periods will make little difference to levels of participation, and could even make them worse in the long term. 

A press release from the European Commission lay hidden in my inbox since the New Year. It proudly trumpets changes from the 1st January this year that the Commission has made to extend consultation periods from eight to twelve weeks. In doing this the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, expects that by:

“… keeping our consultations open longer we will strengthen the voice of the citizens, businesses and organisations that help us shape our policies for the benefit of all.”

By increasing the consultation time and instituting a new alerts service, the Commission expects to increase participation in its consultations especially from groups currently underrepresented.

Short consultation time can be a real problem for organisations, and networks in particular. This is especially true for those that may not be aware of work that a government department is doing because it is tangential to their interests.

However, lack of time is not the only thing that reduces participation by citizens and underrepresented groups. Our Pathways through Participation project demonstrates vividly that for most citizens, time spent participating in government consultation is time badly spent because it doesn’t actually make any difference. This can be because decisions have already been made, or because special interest groups end up swaying the decision-maker more than citizens and less powerful groups ever could.

Indeed, changing the time required for consultation could be worse than useless if it turns into a box ticking exercise, “well we gave you an extra four weeks to tell us what you think; what are you complaining about?”

As well as (or perhaps instead of) worrying about the time it allows for consultation, the Commission should also think through how it will implement what are really very simple principles for authentic, meaningful public engagement. For example, we’ve developed some, and Sciencewise’s (PDF) are also very good.

If the culture of the organisation engaging citizens doesn’t change, changing the consultation period will make little difference. So, while we can expect the Commission to keep its New Year’s resolution to give citizens more time to air their views, I think we can be equally confident that it will make little difference to how citizens engage with the decisions it is making.

Hat-tip: Janice Thomson for pulling this to my attention

Photo Credit: Mandy (intermission)


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