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July 11th, 2018
Rhion Jones Founding Director of the Consultation Institute,

Public consultation is everywhere: so, should we worry about the politics?

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Effective policymaking needs good consultation. That, in turn, needs support from all those in office or in power says, @RhionJones

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There's no significant literature on the theory of consultation, let alone how it works in practice. @TCInews is aiming to change that.

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Why does public #consultation get such a bad press? @RhionJones takes a closer look at the politics of consultation.

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Rhion Jones discusses The Politics of Consultation, a book published in July 2018

The short answer is that no-one has worried… until now.

There is little or no significant literature on the theory of consultation, let alone how it works in practice. References to Sherry Arnstein's work in the US half a century ago focused on her labelling it “tokenistic”, and there is no shortage of critics who claim that the only effective forms of public participation are those where power is shared in some way.

Maybe such people are not policymakers. If they were, they might view consultations as more useful. It is, after all, one of the methods of public involvement that have been grafted onto our basic electoral process. Whitehall organises about 30 of them every month; a typical local authority has about 10 in that time. The NHS and countless other public bodies are also prolific consultors. We are all consultees! Not least because, as the Centre for Public Impact has recently emphasised, finding “legitimacy” is pivotal for effective government.

BBC Radio 4's flagship Today programme reflects this growing consultation activity every morning. Also, almost every week, a government minister is happy to come to the studio to parade his or her listening credentials by announcing or launching a consultation on a current subject. In general, it is a soft interview. Plenty of opportunities to explain the issue and invite stakeholders to contribute their views. Terribly voter-friendly and, when done well, wholly commendable.

Why then does public consultation get a bad press? Is it that, too often, the decision has already been taken? Or is there evidence that those in charge are unlikely to be open to influence? Do decision-makers genuinely want the advice? Or are they just going through the motions? When a consultation is launched, therefore, no-one is quite sure if it has real substance or is mostly PR spin. In fact, many are fine, but others are little more than a sham. Listen to informed stakeholders and you will often hear complaints that the process has been “hijacked by politicians”. In other words, there is tension between consultation as an administrative device - there to secure “evidence-based policymaking” - and its role in politics, testing out what's acceptable to a wider public. Which of these, we wonder, does more for “legitimacy”?

Addressing this and related issues are our aim in The Politics of Consultation. We acknowledge the useful role consultation plays in a modern democracy, but examine its practical application. The history of public participation in the various environments of health, local authorities, town planning, and central government shows us that none of them operates in the same way. The dynamics of dialogue are subtly different, and the style and processes used tend to reflect that history. And much of that history consists of duties to consult imposed by Parliament on public bodies of all shapes and sizes.

It is one of the less endearing characteristics of our British political system that our parliamentarians are prone to demand of others a degree of public consultation that they seldom exhibit themselves. It is as if they cannot quite trust managers, or even elected local government councillors, to make wise decisions without first sounding out opinion among communities - or interest groups.

In some ways, they have made it a statutory duty - as in the provision of the 2010 Equality Act which states that public bodies must have “due regard” to the impact of their decisions on equality considerations. In the meantime, the courts have increasingly intervened and developed a demanding set of common law rules that are applicable to virtually all consultations. In practice, this means that every proposal going to public consultation must be explained in sufficient detail that consultees can give them “intelligent consideration” - a demanding requirement.

Suddenly, a failure to consult properly and legally becomes the basis of countless judicial reviews, as pressure groups and campaigners probe every aspect of the process. They are looking for a vulnerability over which to challenge a decision they don't like. Do not be fooled. It is rarely just a legal matter; these are mostly political affairs, and there's the rub. So many public consultations are about political choices and the need for politicians to be seen to be open to persuasion - especially by those most affected.

There are plenty of technical niceties to argue over. We wrote a whole book about them in 2009: it was called The Art of Consultation. But we have since realised that it is the overlay of political forces that make public engagement so difficult. The truth is that forecasting the impact of new policies or difficult decisions is not an exact science, and the whole point of consultation is to expose each set of assumptions to informed scrutiny. That means rigorous and honest debate, with the danger that there are politicians who may be tempted to cut corners or be economical with the truth. What is uncertain is whether this is just a small minority. Or is the manipulation of consultation more widespread than we realise? And are our broadcasters, no matter how prestigious, unwilling collaborators in a confidence trick, as governments pretend to listen to citizens more than they actually do?

Effective policymaking needs good consultation. That, in turn, needs support from all those in office or in power. There is much to do, so the politics need attention!



What is legitimacy to you? Where do you see legitimacy working well? How governments work with citizens to build legitimacy is a big question for CPI. 

Find out how to get involved in our Finding Legitimacy project 

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Rhion Jones Founding Director of the Consultation Institute,
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