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 this 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?

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

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