Consultation principles and open policy making: a view from Sciencewise

This post originally appeared on the Sciencewise Expert Resource Centre.

The Government has recently launched a new set of Consultation Principles, which replaces the Code of Practice on Consultation from July 2008. Consultation is, of course, quite distinct from public dialogue. While the former typically engages people late in the policy-making process on often relatively technical questions, the latter involves citizens at a much earlier stage to deliberate and come to conclusions on public policy issues.

But what affect will the new principles have on engagement between government and civil society, and what do they mean for the role of public dialogue?

The Cabinet Office summarises the new principles as follows:

‘The key Consultation Principles are:

  • departments will follow a range of timescales rather than defaulting to a 12-week period, particularly where extensive engagement has occurred before;
  • departments will need to give more thought to how they engage with and consult with those who are affected;
  • consultation should be ‘digital by default’, but other forms should be used where these are needed to reach the groups affected by a policy; and
  • the principles of the Compact between government and the voluntary and community sector will continue to be respected.’

The new principles have been described as a step-away from a one-size-fits-all approach to one that offers more flexibility for policy and decision makers.  In introducing the principles the Cabinet Office states:

‘The Civil Service Reform Plan commits the Government to improving policy making and implementation with a greater focus on robust evidence, transparency and engaging with key groups earlier in the process.

As a result the Government is improving the way it consults by adopting a more proportionate and targeted approach, so that the type and scale of engagement is proportional to the potential impacts of the proposal. The emphasis is on understanding the effects of a proposal and focussing on real engagement with key groups rather than following a set process.’

This has received a mixed reaction from individuals and organisations outside Government. While some welcome the greater flexibility that the new principles provide, others are concerned about how they might be interpreted by policy and decision makers. In particular, there is some concern that the principles might be seized upon to justify rushed and/or inadequate engagement on an issue. The previous set of principles, on the other hand, were often criticised for being overly onerous and for their tendency to lead to tick box consultation.

So, what will the affect of the new principles be on engagement between government and civil society? I think this is a case where neither critics nor supporters are wrong, because so much will come down to their implementation. If they are implemented poorly, they could lead to last minute consultations taking place on important issues that stakeholders and citizens are unable to respond.

However, if the principles are implemented along with a commitment to open policy making, there will be recognition from policy and decision makers that consultation should be just one (arguably minor) form of engagement in a policy- or decision-making process. Other forms of engagement will be used at much earlier stages of the policy- and decision-making process, engaging the public and stakeholders to ensure the input of the widest possible range of knowledge and views, and that the policy or decision goes with the grain of the public’s views and values.

The science and technology community is arguably leading the field in this area through programmes such as Sciencewise-ERC and the Beacons for Public Engagement. But this mustn’t lead to complacency because there is the opportunity to take the lead and demonstrate what open policy making can look like in practice.

The model of Public Dialogue that Sciencewise promotes doesn’t necessarily replace consultation; but a well designed deliberative dialogue exercise can provide policy makers with valuable information at an early stage, allowing them to approach consultation with more confidence and a better developed policy. The new principles make Public Dialogue more important, not less.

For guidance on improving an organisation’s use of dialogue and engagement, see Sciencewise-ERC’s Departmental Dialogue Index: http://www.sciencewise-erc.org.uk/cms/assets/Uploads/Strategic-Research-documents/DDI-Tool.pdf

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