Freedom from consultation?

Eric Pickles is proposing to replace the current “duty to involve”.  The consultation about public consultation will end in July. It is short and focused on cutting bureaucracy:

“The Government is acting in concrete ways to deliver on its commitment to localism, growth and the Big Society. We are freeing local authorities from targets, guidance and duties. This includes revoking guidance on the two tier code and the whole statutory guidance Creating Strong, Safe and Prosperous Communities. It also includes plans to repeal the two main remaining statutory duties covered in it (the Duty to Involve and the Duty to Prepare a Sustainable Community Strategy).”

The press release notes this simplification will reduce bureaucracy for councils and scrap 56 pages of statutory guidance. The proposed replacement draft is less than a page.  Is page length the right measure for such a basic democratic function as informing, engaging and involving people in government decisions?

This frees up councils – but will it speed the pace of local government working with local communities?

The new draft proposes that

“authorities should consider overall value, including environmental and social value, when reviewing service provision.  To achieve the right balance – and before deciding how to fulfil their Best Value duty – authorities are required to consult a wide range of local persons, including local voluntary and community organisations and businesses.”

Is this admirably concise and enough to ensure users, residents and others become more involved in local decision making and service improvements?

Good public consultation and engagement has helped drive improvements for residents and users and redesign services – with examples ranging from road calming, social care and major budget changes.  But experience from my recent advisory work suggests the crucial issue is how to continue to build a positive attitude and culture of  public engagement in local government, so communities continue to be actively involved.  Do we still need the legal duty and the 56 pages of guidance to ensure that local people are effectively consulted. Or can we celebrate success – has consultation now become a routine part of what we do?

Most of the public want to be informed and know when issues may be under discussion and how to influence them but relatively few will exercise the proposed new rights to petition and challenge.

This proposal does require active citizens to avoid the risk that some individual and communities – both of geography and interest- may become non-consulted, non-involved and non-informed.  I would be very interested to know how both councils and community groups feel they have benefited from the exercise of the duty to inform, consult and involve – and whether they think this change in the legal duty will make a difference.   Comments are welcome.

Sarah Phillips is Deputy Director of the Centre for Public Service Partnerships @ LGiU and is also an Associate of the Consultation Institute.

    1. Linda says:

      I have worked in local government for many years and have been totally frustrated (and often I think suffered a lack of career progression because of it) by the way so-called consultation is undertaken. It’s managed, controlled and I’ve even known bullying tactics from management and councillors to make the results fit what they want rather than what the public are asking for. I love working in local government – I want to do what is right for the community I serve. How can officers do that when their hands are often tied by the career and political ambitions of the people they work for?

    2. Ceri says:

      I tried presenting a petition to my local council. Getting a debate needed more than 1000 signatures, so that’s what I got, though it took a lot of work.
      I tried really hard to get lots of groups involved, for example I met with a local group of people with learning disabilities to talk about what problems they were facing with the cuts, and used accessible language to explain what I was doing. The Council leader said he didn’t need to consult people because they could ‘stop me when they see me on my bicycle’.
      No policies or spending plans were changed as a result of my petition.
      A Conservative councillor (who only had 850 votes, so he couldn’t have managed a petition debate himself) tried to cut off the debate after a few minutes saying that it was an ‘utter waste of time’.
      They didn’t debate my petition, just the council response, which did not at all address my asking them to tell our local MPs that funding cuts to disabled people’s services weren’t OK.
      I was allowed to speak for two and a half minutes per meeting, then the Mayor told me to stop.
      I felt patronised, frustrated, and disempowered, and then humiliated by Councillors making disablist personal comments about me in the local newspaper, and the council Standards Committee saying that this was OK.
      Next time I will use direct action, and not bother trying the ‘proper channels’, because they will just be ignored.
      I’d rather not have a consultation process at all than the sham I had to go through.

    3. Neil Fitzmaurice says:

      Hand-picked ‘stakeholders’ and consultees-of-choice are the norm at the moment where I am. I’ve been fighting a battle against this because it perpetuates top-down control and flawed consultation.
      If this new policy is what it seems to be then localism as I understand will not be coming here. I don’t want more managed consulations. Empowering communities means starting with a blank sheet and seeking to build consensus.

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