Consultation can’t fix our broken politics – we need new ways to engage the public in policymaking

Is consultation broken – or is it our political system? Consultation seems to have become the lightening rod for general discontents about politics and policymaking. Let’s improve consultation  but let’s also rethink how we do policy and politics at the same time.

In the Open Policy project with the Democratic Society in association with the Cabinet Office, we’re exploring what ‘open policymaking’ means in practice, and how we make it effective and democratic. But we’re starting the project in consultation – what works, what doesn’t, and how it can be improved.

A widely held view of consultation is that it is a sop – an exercise that governments are legally required to undertake but which rarely changes policies that have already been decided. This might be both broadly true and largely unfair. Consultation is only one mechanism, one particular stage in the policy process; it was never intended as the sole mechanism for engaging ‘the public’, let alone to ensure that policies have a democratic mandate that other parts of the political process have failed to invest in them.

In our previous post for this project we suggested how open policy represents a challenge to consultation. For us, taken to its logical conclusion (to its greatest openness), ‘open policy’ means we need to develop a radically different approach to policy and research. In terms of social policy, this means developing approaches that enable public service practitioners and services users to conduct and engage in research and policy analysis directly. These groups are at the frontline of public services and social issues, and as a result they have practical expertise and experience that could be used to improve social policy, especially to make policy more credible and pragmatic.

Where does this leave today’s approach to consultation? Consultations are often about what government intends to do. It hardly makes sense to complain when government does what it said it intended to (indeed, we commonly criticize government for the opposite). In the case of particularly contentious policies or those that haven’t been sufficiently publicly debated, consultation will never be able to resolve the perceived lack of a public mandate.

As a thought experiment, just imagine a consultation process that was much more ‘open’ – one whereby policy did change dramatically compared to what was originally proposed. The problem immediately becomes apparent: government could in theory find itself in an endless ‘consultation loop’, with each new stage of consultation radically changing the policy in question, to the extent that a new round of consultation would be required to accompany it. Government would never get anything done, and quite rightly this would generate accusations of endless ‘dithering’ and ‘u-turns’ – of being in office but not in power.

In recognition of the devalued nature of consultations and possibly the ‘one-size-fits-all’ manner in which too many consultations are approached, the Government has announced it is moving to a more “proportionate and targeted approach” (this announcement produced what is perhaps the least thrilling headline ever on the BBC News website). The new guidelines recognise the need to “avoid creating unrealistic expectations” by making it clear where policy has been finalised and will not be subject to change as a result of the consultation. This makes sense – much of the criticism directed at consultations stems from unrealistic or inaccurate expectations among respondents. The guidance recommends instead that the objectives of any consultation should be clear, and depend to a great extent on the type of issue and the stage in the policy-making process.

However, the new guidance also risks replicating the current confusion about consultation by advising that: “Engagement should begin early in policy development when the policy is still under consideration and views can genuinely be taken into account.” From a democratic point of view this is unarguable – but the problem is that consultation can’t hope to meet these aspirations. ‘Public consultations’ in most cases aren’t – they don’t reach the public or garner many responses from them. They also aren’t really a form of deliberation; they’re not about policy formulation, rather they are more commonly about policy adjustment. Why be cynical about what should be obvious? Government sometimes makes the mistake of trying to appear as if it is engaged in open policy formulation when it isn’t, but we don’t have to collude in this and then blame government when this turns out not to be the case.

We need new forms of participation for early policy development, and for research, evidence-gathering and analysis. This isn’t and can never be the job of consultation. Unless we create a much clearer distinction between consulting on policies that government intends to enact, and developing new policy agendas where government isn’t sure what should be done, we will see much more of what we call ‘guerilla policy’ – grassroots policy research and development that people and organisations do for themselves without being given ‘permission’ by the policy establishment. There have always been campaigns and protests of course; what’s different now is that people can mobilise, coordinate and share information so much more quickly – including to overturn official policy (or at least severely undermine its credibility). We happen to think that we need more guerilla policy – but we recognise that government might not.

What’s important about this project is that it encompasses how we can improve consultations today, but also how we can develop radical new forms of engagement in  policy tomorrow. The extent of the crisis in democratic legitimacy suggests we need to do both. Sorting out which is which will be crucial to our work. So in the spirit of the exercise, let us know your view – are there aspects of consultation we should retain, or does ‘open policy’ require us to start again with a blank sheet of paper? Comment on this site or on the Open Policy forum for open policymaking and better consultation.


4 Comments on “Consultation can’t fix our broken politics – we need new ways to engage the public in policymaking”

  1. This sounds fascinating. I think you’re bang on with the assertion – if I’ve interpreted it correctly, that the full engagement cycle needs repositioned. That includes the evidence base as well as redesigning the consultation model.

    I recently came across a consultation, possibly by NHS Forth Valley, can’t quite recall, where they engaged the public starting with a blank sheet then constructed how the final outcome should be presented. This seemed to avoid the risk of entrenched positions and accusations of it being fait accompli. The community shaped the proposal rather than respond to it.

    Add to this the barriers that can be broken down through innovative use of social media, instigated through thorough a robust evidence base and research about needs, risks, benefits and costs, then it is clear to me that more open two-way dialogue from the very start of planning will achieve far more than any existing approach ever could.

    It’s all about listening really. I’m not suggesting people aren’t being listened too but rather let’s turn the process on its head and use innovative approaches to do things differently. Some initial financial invesetment may be required but that will be far outweighed by the results and, perhaps, having less financial burden later in the process.

    Just a thought…
    MarCommsKenny

    • Thanks MarCommsKenny – Yes that’s exactly right, and such an approach might also avoid some of the antagonism that results from policies where people and organisations don’t feel they have been given sufficient opportunities to input early enough. It’s not that this would resolve differences of opinion or positions – we’re not arguing for politics without ideology – but it might help to ensure that both ‘sides’ (government and those affected by policies) better understand each others’ positions and the pressures and factors that inform these positions. One of the things we’d like to do in the open policy project with the Democractic Society and Cabinet Office is examine and promote these different, more open processes for developing policy, rather than just (as at the moment) responding to policy when it’s often too late. What’s exciting is that, as with your example, there are plenty of instances where such methods have already been tried and which we can learn from.

  2. Another part of the equation is making sure the people being consulted have information – contextual information, not just what’s provided as part of a specific consultation.
    This is why Lambeth Council, aiming to become a co-operative council that co-creates services with citizens and stakeholders, were so keen to participate in a project we have been delivering for the Department of Communities around open data. The project has delivered an ‘open data demonstrator’ – see http://www.lambeth-in-numbers.co.uk – to make public data about the locality (deprivation, health indicators, local facilities) readily accessible to local residents. It does so by putting data onto interactive maps and charts. We hope lots of people will visit the demonstrator and provide feedback. A video of one of Lambeth’s councillors talking about the project is available at ow.ly/dYraC

    • Thanks Vicky – the Lambeth project is very interesting, and your broader point is very important as well – that we need to move beyond thinking about specific consultations to a broader agenda of informing people so that they can participate in an ongoing way. This is just one respect in which people often need to be supported to be able to participate effectively; alongside broader contextual information they might also require confidence-building activities, some (unavoidable) terminology to be explained, advocates to support their participation, and so on.


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