I’ve been musing recently on an interesting quandary: why aren’t advocates of public participation and engagement more successful in engaging the policymakers who design consultations?
Why is it that we continue to live in a world of PDF consultation documents, when so much research and – let’s be honest about this, government money – has been spent on toolkits, reports, frameworks and models?
It’s not for want of published material or wise men and women working in the field. There’s Involve, of course which publishes tons of useful stuff, including People and Participation sponsored by the excellent but little-known Democratic Engagement Branch of the Ministry of Justice. And there are plenty of specialist consultants around to help too.
Is it that the techniques don’t work? Is it that there’s too much out there to digest? Is it that policymakers are idle or blinkered? Is it that politics or the media get in the way of open public dialogue? Is it about budget, or timescales, or vested interests, or a consultancy conspiracy… or what?
Let’s take a made-up example: Sanjay.
Sanjay is a middle-ranking official in a central government department. He’s working on a new piece of policy which affects everyone in the UK, proposes some controversial options and is also quite technical – there are econometric models of market impact, a stakeholder list of 300 organisations and a complex history stretching back decades. Sanjay’s boss is friendly but overwhelmed with other policy projects, and Sanjay has only a couple of people supporting him in his team on this policy, one of whom is quite new. The Minister – recently arrived following a reshuffle – is keen to see action on the policy – under pressure from the Opposition – and is pushing Sanjay to prepare a Green Paper in the next six weeks with a view to bringing forward legislation in the next parliamentary session.
Sanjay’s heard of citizens juries, but isn’t sure what they do. He’s an economist by training, and is confident that one of the proposed options is going to be most effective – happily, two of the key stakeholder bodies seem to agree, based on a recent meeting. Since it’s quite a specialist area, it’s hard to see what perspectives a lay person could usefully contribute. So while there’s a duty to consult, the team are really hoping for a tick in the box.
When Sanjay meets the consultation co-ordinator in his Department to talk about the options, they agree to recommend to the Minister that the document be put as a PDF on the Department’s website, and a letter be sent to the stakeholder list inviting them to respond. The Minister will do a photocall at a local community centre to promote the launch.
87 responses are received, and there are two short articles in a broadsheet supplement. Under six hundred people are touched by the consultation, though Sanjay and the Minister feel they’ve done a good job, and both are subsequently promoted.
What are we doing, in our different roles, to help people like Sanjay make better policy through public dialogue and involvement?
Image credit: massdistraction