The Key Ideas

#20 Use radical new practises in organising public consultation and deliberation

Government should use radical new practices in how it seeks opinion and advice. Firstly, it must change how it seeks the views of stakeholders and citizens. Consultation is an essential part of the work of government but for many of those consulted, it is now seen through cynical eyes. This is largely due to bad practice: consultation is often brought in to the decision-making process far too late after key decisions have been made, leaving people feeling that they are not being consulted but being asked to offer opinions on fairly minor aspects of implementation. This feeling of 'coercive consultation' is disempowering, further exacerbated when people see little connection between what people have put in their consultation responses and what then emerges as the final decision—the so-called 'black box' problem where you can see what goes in and what comes out but have no idea what happened in between.

This happens in part because of the usual pressures of workload and in part because people tend to do things 'as they've always been done'. But there is certainly a part of this which really is driven by a desire to use consultation not to seek views but to manage stakeholders into accepting decisions which have already been made. Unsurprisingly this is known as DAD (Decide, Announce, Defend)—an undemocratic practice.

Where possible, consultations should be replaced by co-production and collaboration with the users of services. Whichever approach is taken, it should begin at the earliest possible point in policy development, to help frame the question and the solution, and not just to shape implementation. If there is a network of National Policy Academies then by nature they should be doing the early thinking anyway, hopefully outside the context of ‘big p’ politics and in an open and democratic way. Individual Policy Academies should work with the Democracy Academy to produce the best and most open consultation process possible, then use the best and most open process for identifying what has come out of consultation, adapting to change thinking if the results contradict what people expect. Of course, because Policy Academies are open and participative, there should be continuous opportunities for citizens to follow, engage with, and propose changes to the development of thinking. Government and the civil service will of course have to consult on the implementation phase of policies too and they should also work with the Democracy Academy to follow best practice at all stages. This will form a robust and comprehensive system of public deliberation over policy development that goes beyond simple consultation.