In the first of a series of three Blog posts about the new UK Government Consultation Principles Edward Andersson looks at the initial reactions from the engagement community.
The Cabinet Office launched their new Consultation Principles on the 17 of July (Which replaced the old Code of Conduct for Consultation) while I was on holiday and it has taken a few weeks for me to find the time to write about the changes. In this first blog post about the principles I’ll look at stakeholder reactions. A second blog post will provide some Involve commentary and a final post will provide links to further guidance to support civil servants.
The Principles received a mixed reception. They were welcomed by The Consultation Institute who said it would help make consultation “fit for purpose and not unnecessarily onerous”.
Online Engagement expert Steph Gray was cautiously optimistic but worried that civil servants might choose a simplistic interpretation that minimized their interaction with the public and stakeholders. He also said “‘digital by default’ is at risk of becoming a weasel phrase akin to ‘evidence based policymaking’ or ‘social marketing’ which can be met with a nod to a SurveyMonkey response form or a tweeted launch.” He also mentioned the excellent Participation Principles written by Participation Cymru for the Welsh Government.
“Compact Voice” was critical of the new principles and felt they might prevent organisations from responding or engaging with policy decisions which affect them and Chris Whitehouse characterized the new principles as “an incredibly arbitrary system that will result in too little time being given to consultations on key policies and will severely limit the opportunities charities have to engage in public policy development”.
In our next blog post I will provide some Involve commentary on the new Principles.
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:
Edward Andersson reflects on what the new version of the Best Value Statuary Guidance means for engagement and consultation.
The government has now developed its new Best Value Statutory Guidance to replace the 2008 statutory guidance “Creating Strong, Safe and Prosperous Communities”. The new guidance is a very short document and the government has retained its intention to repeal the Duty to Involve.
The consultation on this a few months back prompted vigorous debate on our blogs here, here and here as well as on the wider web . In large part this was because the government proposed to repeal the 2009 Duty to Involve.
The guidance is only two pages long. It does cover a lot of ground in those two pages. For those who worried that the government was intending to roll back engagement completely there is encouraging news; the document does mention the 1999 Duty to Consult and expresses that “Authorities must consult representatives of council tax payers, those who use or are likely to use services provided by the authority, and those appearing to the authority to have an interest in any area within which the authority carries out functions. Authorities should include local voluntary and community organisations and small businesses in such consultation. This should apply at all stages of the commissioning cycle, including when considering the decommissioning of services.”
Davy Jones has written a good blog on what the Guidance says on engagement; including the full text of the law which is very useful.
Personally I’m worried by where the guidance takes us, purely from an involvement and engagement practitioner.
I’d like to see government as a whole shifting more towards ongoing, relationship driven engagement, as opposed to short term, one off issues driven consultation. I don’t think this new guidance does this. It does say that “authority should actively engage the organisation and service users as early as possible before making a decision” and hopefully they will make use of the excellent Engagement Cycle to make sure that consultations around commissioning are part of an ongoing dialogue as opposed to one off effort. Realistically though I do worry that a narrow duty to consult may mean more last minute rubber stamp consultation and less of what we actually need: genuine dialogue between public services and the people that use them in a locality.
That’s my take on it; I’d be very interested to hear your views on the government’s new guidance.
I have been spending a lot of time in Turkey lately, working on projects with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the UNDP. The projects have looked at how citizens can be better involved in local and national decisions. I find that travelling is always an illuminating experience; what at first seems very foreign and different to the UK often ends up shedding new light on work I’m doing back home. So it has been in Turkey, where, despite differences, the future challenges of local democracy aren’t that different after all. Turkey is, much like England, heavily centralised with little room for local decision making.
An interesting case in point is the role of the Muhtar (village headman), an elected post (the closest British equivalent would be parish councillors). Much like parish councillors they are an example both of what is best and worst with democracy at the local level.
On the one hand they are very local and non party political, just like the parish councillors. Despite limited power Muhtars often command a reasonable level of trust in their communities. They are certainly more connected to local residents than the municipal councillors and in part this springs from the fact that the Muhtar role is non-partisan and relatively informal. Any proposals to formalise it or increase their power may undermine these qualities.
On the other hand Muhtars have frustratingly little real power and their role is becoming increasingly irrelevant as some of the tasks they used to perform (administrative duties and census, for example) are now being done remotely via e-government applications. In the worst cases, the post of Muhtar is almost hereditary (with son replacing father), appointed through uncontested elections (with abysmal turnout) and office holder primarily motivated by local prestige. All of these are also criticisms at various points levelled at Parish councillors.
A strange incentive to become a Muhtar is the customary right to carry a gun. In that regard they are quite different from Parish councillors! This is one example of where something which at first sight seemed completely irrelevant to the British case actually turned out to be quite illuminating. The fact that the right to bear arms in some parts of Turkey acts as an incentive to make people stand for office brought home to me the difficulty of dealing with motivations for participation. I was thinking how problematic it is from a British perspective to have armed local representatives and how the prospect of gun ownership might attract the wrong kind of applicant.
Last week I gave a presentation (Together with Richard Wilson from IzWe) for the Home Office and Baroness Newlove, the Government’s Champion for Active, Safer Communities and ended up spending a lot of time talking about what the excellent reports from Pathways through Participation have to say about motivations for participation. I made the point that we need to make sure that the participation gives incentives that tie in to the motivations of citizens and I was challenged by a community activist. She asked why incentives should be necessary at all. Shouldn’t the positive impact on the community be enough on its own? After all that’s why she was involved. There were a lot of nods around the room and many people seemed to be worried that introducing incentives of any kind would lead to the wrong kind of engagement. We often assume that there are good and bad reasons for participating (the good reasons obviously being the ones that compelled us and the bad those that drive our neighbours).
A lot of people find the idea of people participating motivated by personal incentives troubling. In an ideal world everyone would be motivated by doing good for the community rather than personal aggrandisement.
However, I think that assuming that everyone is motivated by the same things is a dangerous path to take. The Campaign Company has done some interesting work looking at what motivates different parts of the population. Clearly for some people (usually those already involved) good deeds are their own reward and they tend to look down on their neighbour who are looking for benefits that accrue to them personally, or indeed those neighbours primarily motivated by negative emotions and fears. Simply discounting these people and their motivations may be good for the sense of moral superiority of the existing activists, but is unlikely to encourage a broader range of people to take part.
Clearly some motivations will always be inappropriate (corruption, racial hatred, etc.), but maybe it is time for all us habitual activists to take a good look at ourselves in the mirror. If we sneer at people who show up for the free food, fancy title or cash incentive; what does that say about us? Because the fact is that people often join in for these reasons, but they end up staying on as activists for very different reasons, the social interactions, the friendships and the sense of local ownership that develops. The trick is to get them in the door in the first place for these social reasons to start playing a role.
So maybe I’m wrong to take exception to people choosing to become Muhtars in Turkey because it comes with status and the right to carry a pistol. Should we worry too much about the initial motive if they end up doing good work and representing their community? It is easy to laugh at the ‘big fish in the small pond’, but maybe we need to abandon our snobbishness and ‘big up’ the offer in order to appeal to some people’s sense of vanity? Should we accept that for some people the gold chain, sitting on prestigious boards, titles (for example being a ‘champion’ or ‘warden’ rather than a ‘volunteer’) and uniforms and tabards and other visual signs of status are very important?
Handing out guns to parish councillors might increase interest in the role, but it is perhaps a step too far. However, the shiny sheriff’s badge might have the same effect. After all, community rehabilitation means making the people who have done something wrong visible to the community, so shouldn’t we be making those who have done something right visible as well?
This blog is a repository for posts I have made over the years at Involve as well as more personal reflections.