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.
Christopher Hitchens used to evaluate the credibility of any person or organisation by their willingness to cite ‘evidence against interests’, that is, to acknowledge facts that are contrary to their own position. It’s a good test – and one that many policymakers, commentators and think tanks would fail regularly. With this in mind, we should challenge our own view that social policy would be better if it was informed by the people who use and provide public services – after all, doesn’t the Hillsborough cover-up show that we can’t trust bodies such as the police not to put their own interests before the public interest?
We’ve argued previously against the view, promoted in particular by right-wing think tanks and commentators but implicitly taken up by much of thinktankland, that public sector workers and ‘user groups’ need to be largely ignored in policy development because they are inevitably self-interested and self-serving. Our view is that social policy would be better if it was informed by the expertise, experience and insight from the frontline.
In the case of Hillsborough, as the publication last week of the report of the Independent Panel confirmed, the police engaged in an extensive and coordinated cover-up of the truth. This went all the way to the top of the South Yorkshire Police. Chief Constable Peter Wright authorised the alteration of police statements to delete words like ‘chaos’, ‘fear’, and ‘confusion’ in criticism of the police operation, in order to enable the police and others to blame Liverpool supporters for the disaster. 164 police statements were altered in the wake of the disaster, and 116 of these received substantial changes to remove comments “unhelpful to the force’s case.”
The coroner also took blood alcohol levels from all of the deceased, including children, to try to draw a link between the late arrival of fans and heavy drinking. Perhaps most sickeningly of all, police officers carried out computer checks on those who had died in an attempt to impugn their reputations. As one comment on the Liverpool Echo‘s website asked last week: “How could such a cover up have happened? So many different authorities getting away with lies. And to get away with it for so long is simply astonishing. They must know the hurt and the pain that they have caused for so long. And still they continued to hide behind the lies, carrying on with their own lives and careers.”
This type of behaviour is not confined to the police of course. NHS staff have abused and neglected patients, and hospitals have tried to cover it up and threaten whistle blowers. Charities have mistreated and ignored the vulnerable adults and children they claim to care for. Public sector trade unions have bullied their own members and failed to represent their real views and interests; they have also stopped managers from dealing with poorly performing employees or from improving services for the public. Given this, why should we listen to the people who provide services? Won’t they always represent their own interests first?
The problem is institutions, not individuals. There will always be some people who act badly and harm others, including inevitably in public services. But only badly led and managed organisations can effectively legitimize such behaviour and try to silence those who challenge it. When we argue that the people who provide public services should have a greater role in policy, we don’t mean a stronger role for those organisations such as large charities or trade unions that can already promote their views to policymakers, rather we’re talking about the individuals on the frontline who are ignored not only by policymakers but also sometimes by the organisations that claim to represent them.
Could the Hillsborough cover-up ever happen again? Some columnists have suggested that the ‘forensic transparency’ now offered by mobile phones and Twitter would make it much more difficult and that there is a danger of over-reacting to scandals such as the Hillsborough cover-up by not trusting any public institutions. But the best mainstream media article of the week for me was by Philip Johnston in the Daily Telegraph, who recognised the broader implications:
“Over the years, the police have been one British institution that has proudly stood comparison with the very best in the world: unarmed (though less so than they used to be), impartial, independent and largely incorruptible. Perhaps that was always a naive caricature; but it was a view so deeply ingrained in our national psyche that we were unwilling to give credence to powerful evidence that suggested otherwise. However, it was not only the police who let down the Hillsborough families: the very institutions that most of us trust to get to the bottom of things – the courts, the media and Parliament – were all culpable.”
This is perhaps a rather middle class view – many working class communities have always had a less trusting view of the police – but it’s a strange week when the Guardian tells us to ‘go easy’ on the establishment and the Telegraph reminds us to be ever-watchful of those in power.
Surely the Hillsborough cover-up demonstrates that policy can’t be left to the establishment – that arrogance and remoteness breeds bad policy and leads to tragedy (as Daniel Taylor argued in the Observer yesterday). It reinforces the importance of the individuals who provide public services having a much greater voice in policy, so that they can speak freely and honestly outside of institutional interests and constraints.
Perhaps what’s most frightening about institutional power is not its ability to make evil decisions but its collective capacity for ignorance regarding of the effects of those decisions. The answer to the question from the commentator on the Liverpool Echo site is that such ignorance comes most easily to those remain safely distant from the consequences – another reason why we should listen more closely to those at the frontline, both service users and providers, rather than the policy establishment. As C. S. Lewis wrote:
“I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of Admin. The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid dens of crime that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see the final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern.”