In the second of a three part series about the new Government Consultation Principles, Edward Andersson writes about Involve’s reaction to these new principles. In my previous post I looked at initial reactions to the Cabinet Office’s new Consultation Principles. In this post I will provide some Involve commentary.
Like many other guidance rewrites under the current government the new Consultation Principles are much shorter than the document they replace (See for example the debate around the Best Value Guidance and Duty to Involve). The Consultation Principles are three pages long; they replace a code of conduct (PDF document) which ran to thirteen pages. So on the count of saving on paper and printing costs the new Principles are an improvement. What of the content –what have they had to cut out in order to shorten the document?
The principles contain important guidance that Involve and many others have called for over the years; including a focus on real engagement and not tokenism, an acknowledgement that consultation is not always appropriate and an expectation that consultation will be done early and in a proportionate manner. This marks a move away from a more rigid ‘one size fits all’ approach –an approach which has led to a spree of court cases in recent years.
One of the most controversial changes is that the new principles do away with the ’12 week rule’ which previously stated that “Consultations should normally last for at least 12 weeks with consideration given to longer timescales where feasible and sensible”. The new statement says timeframes should be “proportionate and realistic” and might “typically vary between two and 12 weeks”.
The problem with the old definition was that Civil Servants became hung up on the 12 weeks as an absolute law. The new version does away with some of the rigidity but insidiously 12 weeks has ceased to be a minimum and will now be perceived by many to be a maximum. It is true that there are many cases where a shorter consultation process is possible –but for 2 weeks to be a meaningful consultation period there has to have been substantial engagement in advance and the stakeholders need heads up as to when to expect the consultation.
Worryingly I think many civil servants will not read it this way. A strong argument for the 12 week minimum rule previously was that membership groups need time to consult with their local branches and members before submitting a formal response. A shorter period is likely to lead to more rushed and less considered responses.
I like where the principles place their emphasis: tailoring the consultation to the relevant participants and issues, providing easy to understand information, making sure that departments make clear how previous feedback taken into consideration, the importance of clear objectives and cross- departmental collaboration.
I can see where the principles have come from –consultation is often done as a tick box exercise, following a formalistic process, for unclear reasons and with little feedback. The two and a half year Pathways through Participation research project interviewed over 100 citizens and we did not find one of them who had a positive experience of formal consultation. Clearly there are massive problems with consultation today, not least that it leaves citizens cynical, angry and disempowered. The new principles may play a role in responding to this.
However in cutting ten pages from the guidance the new Principles have missed off some important things that were covered in the Old Code of Conduct. A key thing that is missing is definitions of consultation, engagement and other terms.
The document is very up front about not being a ‘how to’ guide. The brevity does mean that it does little to define terms. The statement “Consultation is part of wider engagement” is true but without explanation and backing information the advice may go unheeded.
The New Consultation Principles also do not mention the importance of deliberative dialogue when engaging on complicated issues. Given the good work done by Sciencewise and other parts of Government with these types of methods it seems a shame that civil servants looking for advice on how to consult aren’t signposted.
On a very fundamental level a key problem with the principles is that they solely focus on consultation and fail to encourage or support civil servants who want to engage citizens in decisions at an earlier stage or where civil servants might wish to devolve power to citizens directly.
The Consultation principles are not very inspiring and there is a risk they will encourage more of the same from government.
There are two areas where the Code of Conduct on Consultation provided structure which the new Principles do not mention. The Code required each consultation to provide a standard table of basic information so that citizens and stakeholders could quickly see if the consultation was relevant to them. Under the Code each department also had to appoint a Consultation Coordinator who would provide advice on how to consult as well as coordinating the consultation across the departments. I’d be interested to hear from Civil servants and those who responded to many consultations –have you found the Consultation Coordinators and standard table of basic information useful? Will you miss them or are they just another bureaucratic add on?
Since the new principles for all their virtues do not tell civil servant HOW to engage and consult I thought that I’d list some of the best ‘how to’ guides out there next week. If you have suggestions for guide guidance on consultation and engagement please comment below.
Edward Andersson discusses what digital technology means for engagement and what the strengths and weaknesses are of engaging online. A week ago I gave a talk at Government Digital Services on Digital and face to face engagement. This post is a summary of what I said.
First of all I acknowledge that Involve is different from many others in the digital engagement field; we’re not software producers, we’re not trying to sell software and we focus on engagement as whole rather than digital engagement. Our mission is to make the public sector into better commissioners of dialogue and engagement. I’ll start with the question to what degree digital technology represents a breakthrough?
Two quotes illustrate how differently new technology is interpreted:
“The world is poised on the cusp of an economic and cultural shift as dramatic as that of the Industrial Revolution.”
Steven Levy (Wired journalist)
“The Internet is a telephone system that’s gotten uppity.”
Clifford Stoll (US Author and astronomer)
My view is that both quotes are true, in their own ways. We tend to overestimate changes in the short term (where many people hype up relatively mundane technologies) and underestimate the shifts in the longer term.
There is a tendency among consultants to create artificial distinctions between digital/online engagement and face to face engagement. Human nature is the same in both settings and of course a badly designed online consultation without a clear purpose is just as much a waste of time as a face to face process without a purpose.
I think people get excited about digital for the wrong reasons.
People often think that the key defining characteristics of digital are:
Speed –The internet is making things go faster, but the obvious question is ‘so what?’. The really big qualitative differences in terms of speed of sending messages happened in the 1860s. Nowadays the speed of communication is already faster than human beings can react to.
Scale –The internet does allow a larger number of people to take part than was possible before. It is a great thing but it can also lead people to focus too much on the number of people taking part. Many of the websites or articles which have attracted the most number of hits do so for the wrong reasons; scandals are great for hit rates but not for much else.
Cost–The Internet does have the possibility of reducing the costs of engagement; while this is true it is often oversold by consultants.
There are also very good reasons for shifting to Digital which are often overlooked:
Enabling -Digital technologies allows the third sector and individuals to self-organise and do things that in the past the council would have to do. This opens up tremendous opportunities (if we are willing to give up some control).
Networking –the Internet opens up possibilities of networking people who wouldn’t normally meet, for reasons of time, space and who they are.
Flexible -finally the nature of digital information allows comparison, aggregation, mashing up data, and ability to make it easily accessible. And to make lots of different sorts of outputs which would not be possible using pen and paper.
There are of course areas were online engagement doesn’t work as well as face to face, for example:
But of course it is not an either/or. In many cases face to face and online complement each other; and of course let’s not forget that digital technology can be used in face to face meetings as well.
Adding digital technology to face to face engagement allows:
The award winning Geraldton 2029 process in Western Australia has made use of a wide array of face to face and digital processes in determining the future of the town. 4000 people have been actively involved through world cafés, online surveys, online moderated deliberation, 21st century town hall meetings™, community events to celebrate milestones including BBQs. They have also used the local Newspaper facebook page heavily. What I like about the Geraldton process is how they have understood the strengths of face to face and online and worked with both.
- The Crowdsourced Icelandic constitution has been in the news a lot over the last few months. The Constitutional council has drafted and posted clauses each week open for public comment, and has live streamed their proceedings. The focus has often been on the online elements but it was made possible by in depth face to face deliberation, both from the elected Constitutional Council and a randomly selected national forum.
So to sum up my key points from my presentation:
Happy New Year! I thought I’d take the opportunity to reflect on where we are heading and what we might see in the next 12 months. 2012 as a year has been associated with all kinds of vague and misleading theories about Maya prophesies of impending apocalypse. Even though we are unlikely to see the end of the world, 2012 is still very likely to be challenging.
Take my predictions with a pinch of salt. As Niels Bohr quipped: “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future”. It is humbling to remember that in 1962 the Decca Recording Company rejected the Beatles because “We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.”. Let’s hope that my predictions are more successful.
Turbulence is almost a given; it is instructive to reflect on where we were a year ago. None of the big events of 2011 were ones that we could have predicted. The Arab Spring has toppled seemingly unmovable dictatorships, seemingly calm streets in England erupted in riots and City centres of financial capitals around the world are occupied by disparate and angry protestors. What we expect of democracy is likely to be in transition. One thing is sure for 2012 –we’re bound to be surprised.
Another prediction is we are likely to see frustrations with democratic decision making spill into violence in parts of the world. For states in Middle East and elsewhere the coming year will be dangerous (as recent clashes in Tripoli and Cairo shows). Dictatorships seem to be less dangerous than the transition period to democracy and there is plenty that can go wrong. On a lesser scale communities in the UK and the rest of Europe are experiencing similar transitions and the corresponding risk of violence.
We are also likely to see increased non-violent conflict -2011 has seen a record number of court cases around engagement and consultation, from the Royal Brompton Hospital to London Councils. This is a development I view with unease. Judges are in no way equipped to rate the quality of consultations. It is also likely to encourage Councils to take a ‘back covering’ strategy, rather than focussing on a genuine conversation. We’re likely to see more court cases, and more conflict about engagement, consultation and the big society.
The economy will continue to be a problem. With fewer staff on hand the need to build skills in conflict resolution and facilitation will become acute in many areas. Funding engagement work with clear links to efficiencies and savings won’t be a problem; funding work which makes economic sense over the longer term and where investment is needed will.
Politicians will still mention and support engagement, at least on paper. There seems to be cross party agreement that politics is broken. Expect at least a few high profile initiatives around this topic launched by politicians.
Innovation. The flip side of all this turbulence is that there is a willingness to challenge old ways of working. We’ve seen Councils willing to embrace new ways of working, for example through the NESTA Creative Councils programme (which we are assisting on). Involve and RSA will shortly publish a pamphlet looking at examples of Radical Engagement –genuinely different approaches to citizen influence and we hope we’ll see many more new examples in the year to come.
2012 probably won’t bring a Maya Apocalypse. It will however be a year to remember; difficult but ultimately worthwhile.
So what about New Year’s Resolutions? For myself as a democracy practitioner I’ll suggest the following:
Here’s a presentation I did for the Alberta Climate Dialogue back in September. It is on ‘nudge, think and shove‘ and how these three concepts impact on citizen engagement in climate change policy and mitigation.
Sept, 2011 – ABCD / Centre for Public Involvement / City of Edmonton meeting
Many people working in consultation have noted that those who are happy with a proposal are much less likely to make a submission than those who are negatively impacted. It is far easier to get a petition going opposing a development than it is supporting one and most referendums end up supporting the status quo for similar reasons. So if consultations don’t give a complete indication of how the community feels about the issue, they are disempowering the silent majority.
I vividly remember an example where a Councillor faced vocal opposition from constituents to a new super market development and as a result voted against it. At the time it seemed only a handful of residents were for it. However at election time when the Councillor went round door knocking, a considerable number of people were wondering what happened to the super market. Those who actually supported the development were not noticed because they lived further from the development, were less educated and poorer than the vocal opponents, and as a result they were not heard in the traditional consultation.
Given this ‘response bias’ in consultation someone recently suggested to me that consultation submissions could be weighted in some way to account for the over representation of negative views. I think there are many reasons why this is a dangerous route to take.
In my experience consultations are rarely just about the numbers of responses received. Consultations are about exploring ideas, concerns and unintended consequences of a proposed policy – it is not a vote. Indeed, one of the most important roles of the organiser is to make it clear that consultations are not referendums. Consultations can gather better information about what local people think as well as increase understanding of the likely impacts of the policy. In the latter case a single response providing a vital and overlooked piece of information may carry more weight than thousands of identical template responses.
Weighting can fill a vital role in quantitative consultation in order to balance different demographics response rates, to compensate for lacking recruitment – for example if fewer women than men respond (but only if there is a large enough sample size to begin with). Weighting works for quantitative engagement but not for qualitative responses. However if it is done, it must be done transparently and in a considered way.
Weighting is also useful where the impact of a policy on certain groups is more important than views from the overall population. For example, when consulting on young people’s services it may make sense to weight the responses from young people higher than those from adults. The responses from adults should not be dismissed outright however, as it is possible that some youth activities will have negative or positive impacts on the rest of the population.
While there is some guidance on analysing the answers to consultations it is hard to give clear rules in advance on how to deal with the complexities of consultations. Analysing consultations is an art and not a science. Each contribution has to be assessed based on:
Is weighting the responses the way to deal with this?
Weighting responses that are negative towards a government proposal would (rightly) be seen as undemocratic, unfair and as a manipulative way to skew the debate.
So what should we do?
The Councillor I mentioned earlier found that ward walks helped him to reach out to the silent majority who would not respond on their own. If you suspect that there is a large silent majority try to get their responses through methods such as door knocking, peer interviews, informal engagement or demographically sampled surveys, methods which get views from of the silent voices. Involve have produced a few useful guides to informal engagement that you might find useful in doing so: Not another Consultation and Say & Play.
The problem is that we have an imbalance in the supply of consultation responses. Rather than devaluing some responses to account for the imbalance, the solution is to gather balancing views. The job of the consultation professional is to ensure a level playing field and to seek out the quiet ‘easy to overlook’ voices. In short, amplify the quiet voices rather than trying to muffle the loud ones!
Across the world political parties are struggling, with declining membership and lower levels of public trust. The fortunes of established parties are also becoming more volatile.
In 2010 we saw chaotic scenes from the Israeli, Ukrainian, Italian and Belgian Parliaments. In Sweden the once dominant Social Democrats lost their second election in a row in 2010. From a UK perspective that might not seem like a big deal. However, bear in mind that the Swedish Social Democrats have been in power for all but 14 of the past 93 years and that this is the first time since the 1920s that they have lost two elections in a row; you can see that this represents a significant shift.
Formally dominant parties cannot take their support for granted anymore. The decline in party membership over the past decades has been almost universal across the world. A recent Economist article outlined some of the struggles that parties face.
There are of course still fluctuations in the fortunes of parties but there are few cases of parties achieving sustained massive growth anymore. It doesn't matter if we consider the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Democrats or Republicans. All established parties have seen their membership base shrink.
According to recent research by Parliament the Conservative Party had almost 3 m members and Labour around a million in 1951. The 2008 estimate was Conservatives 250,000 and Labour 166,000. This decline has not been compensated for by a growth in the smaller parties.
In part the decline of party membership is down to changing socio-demographics and is inevitable. When my father was a teenager he joined a local youth party branch not out of conviction but because they organised the only youth dances in the countryside. Nowadays young people are spoilt for choice with multiple one issue movements, and are not reliant on political parties for parties!
For the last 100 years or more organised mass parties have been the backbone of politics in most democratic nations; this period seems to be drawing to a close. What impacts will the decline in party membership have on democracy?
I've identified three impacts:
The first and most of this is obvious impact is increased political volatility. Large and stable party machines have provided consistency, discipline and predictability in politics. Of course they also have negative impacts, for example predictability may also seem like a stitch up; a cynical non-voter in last years election explained to me that ‘Whoever I vote for, parliament always gets in'. Volatile party membership may lead to more frequent changes in government.
The second impact is the rise of new parties, often with populist agendas; in Sweden between 1940 and 1988 no new parties were voted in. Between 1988 and 2010 four new parties have been voted into parliament. This volatility also means that these new parties increasingly are charismatic one person shows. For example we had seen Shinui in Israel, the Pim Fortuyn List in the Netherlands and the series of parties centred around Berlusconi in Italy come and go. This development loosens the power of party whips but also creates quickly shifting fortunes. One man (or occasionally woman) bands are not stable. After the initial enthusiasm dies down a succession of populist flashes in the pan is likely to further disenchant voters.
A third impact of the decline in party membership is that it leaves established Parties open to internal take over. If active party membership at the local level is limited to a dozen or so active members the branch becomes very easy to take over by a committed group of activists or indeed by wealthy funders able to bankroll a campaign. An examples is the sudden success of the Tea Party in shifting the focus of the Republican Party; in some cases taking over local branches of the Republican party in the process.
All of this is leading towards a more unpredictable form of politics. The decline in party membership may or may not be reversible (I wouldn't hold my breath) but we will need to mitigate or live with it. What are the options available to society to deal with these impacts?
One option is to go with politics as usual, blindly ignore the problem and pretend parties still represent mass movements. The results are likely to be the growth of executive power to combat volatility, leaving parliaments increasingly distant and mistrusted. In my view the strengthening of the executive at the expense of parliament has already gone far enough in the UK.
Another option is to look to independent candidates as the solution. If the people no longer want parties why insist? After all didn't we have a function parliament before parties in the modern sense existed? However a system of individual independent MPS which worked in the 1700s and 1800s would be hard to pull off today. While we are likely to see a rise in number of independents, these individual MPs will need to find ways of overcoming disagreements and finding workable solutions. If parties aren't there to facilitate this we will need a substitute.
A third option to deal with volatility is to boost bureaucracy -we have already seen key decision taken from elected politicians and given to quangos and expert panels. This has been criticised as disempowering elected politicians and we are currently seeing the "Bonfire of the Quangos". The question is will it last? After all the Conservatives set up many of the quangos they now profess to detest (including the much maligned Audit Commission). I think we're likely to continue to see some decisions taken out of the hands of politicians and given to experts.
Another solution which some people propose is more direct democracy -handing power directly to people through referendums and initiatives. This will take power away from elected politicians and the Swiss example suggests direct democracy further weakens parties. direct democracy has its place but it is not always a good thing. The difficulty of getting unpopular, but long term beneficial developments, such as congestion charging, through referendums show that direct democracy is probably a complement to representative party politics than a replacement.
Personally I feel that while the above provide some answers a more workable option would be for parties to give up their monopolistic aspirations in favour of a more networked model. The old all encompassing party allegiance feels out of touch; opening up the possibility of more fluid allegiances where the elected member plays a leadership role in the community and the role of the party becomes more about harnessing and interpreting local needs in society. Forward thinking politicians are already doing this of course; developing the skills needed to reconnect to citizens by providing community leadership. Parties can be more relevant connected into a mass network as opposed to trying to be a mass movement on their own.
On Friday, Involve hosts the Local Society Seminar together with Urban Forum and 21st Century Councillor. This event will look at some critical questions around local government, including the strategic role of local government, accountability and risk and the role for councillors in strong and active communities. The discussion papers are well worth a look.
This event won't come up with a simple solution to the global decline in party membership but it is exactly these kinds of conversations we need to have if we are to understand what it means and how to live with it.
This blog is a repository for posts I have made over the years at Involve as well as more personal reflections.