The art of Consultation may be severely tested by the new Government’s attempt to engage everyone on cuts in public expenditure. Or not! It all depends how well it’s done.
If the Government asks the right questions in the right way and focuses debate on those areas where there is still room for manoeuvre, it may receive useful input ... and retain the goodwill of those who take the trouble to contribute.
On the other hand, if it uses consultation as an occasion to bang on (or ‘educate the public’) about the need for drastic cuts, and then proceeds with decisions that have already been taken, it will be seen as nothing more than a PR exercise.
Experience has shown that the public is unconvinced that decision-makers genuinely want to listen. It is rightly wary of politicians pretending to listen, and in The Art of Consultation we catalogue much of what goes wrong in public engagement.
Happily, many public bodies, from local authorities to the police – and even the NHS –have increasingly been getting it right, though there is evidence that the bigger the consultation, the greater the scope for mistakes. It is the sheer size of the Treasury’s plan that is scary, and we see three classic pitfalls that the Government must avoid:
1. Identifying no-go areas. If the public wishes to argue about issues where the Government is already committed, such as manifesto commitments, it will inevitably be disappointed.
2. Access to the debate. There will apparently be face-to-face discussions with ‘experts’. But who is an expert? Who chooses them? And what do they know anyway? In theory anyone can email George Osborne or use the website. But not everyone feels comfortable online.
3. The time factor. The deficit problem has to be solved quickly and some of the savings that the Government is seeking must be found this financial year. It may be difficult to believe that some of its proposals will not be activated until people have had their say about them. Is the Government trying to conduct an exercise for which it may not have the time?
There may be effective workarounds for these problems, and the detailed plans are still to be finalised. But without them, the Government may be storing for itself a bundle of difficulties it would do well to avoid.
On a lighter note, a lot of ministers, civil servants and MPs will now need to become really clued up about the intricacies of public consultation.
How fortunate we’ve written a book about it!
Buy The Art of Consultation here.