Consultations: how long, O Lord, how long?

Lots of talk at the moment about how long is the right length for a consultation. The Cabinet Office, after reducing the minimum period from 12 weeks to 8 weeks in new guidance, found a note on their homework telling them to go back and think about it again.

Here’s a story from Estonia – extracted from an essay I’ve just written for the Local Government Information Unit, out next week.

The Rahvakogu (People’s Assembly), created in response to a corruption scandal in the Estonian parliament, began with a crowdsourcing of political reform ideas which was open to everyone. That was followed by “smart-sourcing”, grouping the ideas into themes and undertaking an expert impact assessment on each proposal.

Next, in a series of seminars, the experts who undertook the impact assessment discussed the outcomes with the people who had proposed the ideas. This brought the initial 1,500 ideas down into a set of eighteen questions, which was taken to a day-long deliberative meeting of 500 randomly selected Estonian citizens. The final options were presented to the Estonian Parliament by the President of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Parliament is currently considering the legislative timetable for implementation.

This approach used different levels of engagement at different times in an ongoing process, fitting the input needed to the method used. It was completely open, recorded online, and undertaken by a network of ten non-government organisations alongside communications and policy experts. It also only took 14 weeks from start to finish – and that between January and April during an unusually severe winter.

So, if the Estonians can do it, so can we, and full steam ahead for 8-week consultations? Not quite.

The lesson from Rahvakogu is that you can get things done quickly if there are big things and there is a strong driver. Not every consultation will work that way.

More important, though, Rahvakogu used a range of different methods to get broad and narrow input, from public and experts, at different points in the process.

That’s what government needs to focus on, rather than timescales. A single style of consultation won’t work. It’s like preparing a three course meal by frying everything – works well for the Wiener Schnitzel, less well for the tomato soup and ice-cream.

Rather than thinking about specific timelines, government should be aiming at putting guidance (and training, and culture) in place that support quality of consultation. That means a strategy throughout the whole policy process, based around networks that officials should already have built up, but going wider when needed. A Public Involvement Statement perhaps (acronymised to PInS rather than SPIn).

When government wants to go wider, should it take eight weeks or twelve? It shouldn’t matter if we trust the bona fides of the Department in question, and know that they are making the policy openly. What counts, as people used to say under a former Administration, is what works.

But what won’t work is one-size, one-method and one-timescale fits all, no matter what the issue is.

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Published by Anthony Zacharzewski

Anthony Zacharzewski was one of the founders of Demsoc in 2006. Before starting work for Demsoc in 2010, he was a Whitehall civil servant and a local government officer.

2 replies on “Consultations: how long, O Lord, how long?”

  1. It stands to reason that if you consult, say over the summer holiday season, then you shouldn’t be looking at cutting back on the duration of a consultation. For me, it’s about opportunity to participate – it might be arguable that if there are many methods and opportunities for participation then timescales can be shorter.

    Likewise, if the decision maker needs to make an urgent decision (e.g. if there is a financial penalty associated with indecision) then a shorter timescale can be chosen.

    If you consider the research on ePetitions and the 100 day rule in terms of participation tails (P.Cruinsank) then 12 weeks seems like a sensible default.

  2. The key to me is to understand who the stakeholders are an how they would access the consultation. If you are involving a relatively small, known group with good online access then short periods are entirely appropriate. If you are expecting voluntary sector groups to involve their service users on complex issues then they will need a lot of extra time.

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