There is nothing a government hates more than to be well-informed; for it makes the process of arriving at decisions much more complicated and difficult. - John Maynard Keynes
There is unfortunately much truth in the above quotation, and in the accompanying cartoon. Chief Executives and Ministers in a hurry, and well meaning staff, all too often want to get on and make decisions, and engage in as little real consultation as they can get away with. They and their staff often have unwarranted confidence in their ability to control others' behaviours and are over-optimistic about what is achievable.
It can be very difficult to counter this tendency - see the speaking truth to power section of this website. But it can be worth quoting or paraphrasing the military doctrine that 'The first duty of a commander is reconnaissance.' This applies in spades to the permanent campaign that is a feature of much Whitehall policy making, as well as to one-off policy initiatives. The best laid schemes will certainly go badly awry unless supported by strong and open-minded consultation processes.
Commentators, including myself, used to argue that successive British governments had over many decades slowly abandoned telling the public how to behave and what to do ('Westminster knows best') and and instead had become much better at genuine consultation, recognising that modern citizens need to be led, with their consent, rather than orders around. But Jeremy Richardson published a rather depressing blog in 2018 in which he argued that that trend had been reversed. A consensual, collaborative and deliberative policy style had been replaced by a much more impositional style. But plenty of scope for good practice remains and is summarised below.
There used to be a time when the public were much less likely to challenge authority. Big corporations had yet to encounter Ralph Nader and the Consumers Association (now Which?). .And government Ministers could simply tell the public what decisions they had taken. It then became necessary to explain why the decision had been taken, which in turn led Ministers to consult in advance of deciding their policies. Best practice is now to go even further and involve the public and key stakeholders at all stages of the policy process.
There are lots of different ways to do this and you should not simply duplicate what someone else has done before you. In particular, don’t limit yourself to written communications. Discussion groups, large formal meetings, informal meetings with individuals and the Internet all have a part to play. And even when preparing formal written consultation, there are a number of choices. Have a look at the detailed advice that is available on consultation procedures, and also look at a range of previous consultation documents and choose a format which best suits your needs.
Above all, remember that you are in policy-formulation or policy-implementation mode, so there is no need to be defensive. Indeed, you should positively encourage respondents to point out your mistakes and possible pitfalls. Good decision making depends on allowing or even encouraging dissent up to the point when your organisation has taken its decision. If your process is effective, and you take the responses seriously, you will find that you then avoid a very large number of traps that you would not have spotted by yourself.
You should therefore encourage those who seem to be able to take a wider view. Cultivate those who say unexpected things or comment candidly upon their organisation. Such people shine unaccustomed light on issues and can be invaluable contributors to the policy making process. Do not make the mistake of thinking that experts' opinions are necessarily correct. Much science is beyond doubt, but much softer scientific opinion, such as medicine and economics, may be distinctly flaky. Doctors will tell you that Medical facts (things we know to be true) have a half life of five years, and that Yesterday's heresy is today's orthodoxy and tomorrow's fallacy.
It is absolutely vital, of course, to consult 'delivery partners' - those who will be responsible for delivering your new policies. They will have strong views about practicality, resources and communication. Ignore them at your peril. As Charles Dillow says, implementation is policy:-
Policy-making is not like writing newspaper columns. It's all about the hard yards and grunt work of grinding through the detail. A failure of implementation is therefore often a sign that the detail hasn’t been thought through, which means the policy itself is badly conceived. Reality is complex, messy and hard to control or change. Failing to see this is not simply a matter of not grasping detail; it is to fundamentally misunderstand the world. If you are surprised that pigs don’t fly, it’s because you had mistaken ideas about the nature of pigs. Bad implementation is at least sometimes a big clue that the policy was itself bad.
It is equally vital that you consult 'the front line' - whether it be members of the public, or your employees, or nurses or police officers etc. etc. The need for this was surely brought home to everyone by the tragedy of Grenfell Tower. Gill Kernick commented as follows:
“For the last 10 years I have worked predominantly in high hazard industries looking at how you create safe cultures … and specifically how to prevent major accidents – low probability, high consequence events. The key to change is creating a connection between the most senior levels of the organisation and the front line. … In the case of housing, because of the complexity of the world we live in, it is the tacit knowledge of residents that is critical to keeping people safe. They have the experience of living in the building, they know what the issues are, and they probably know how to solve them.”
It is in practice not easy to consult the general public, and the effort required can seem disproportionate to the benefit - but it is never disproportionate if it concerns their safety or welfare. You can start by ensuring that the document is written from their perspective and is available in multiple languages. Then give them enough time - 13 weeks minimum - to learn about and assimilate the content of your consultation document before using a response format that makes it easy for them to contribute. It can often be effective to use trusted intermediaries who might organise ‘citizens assemblies’ or who might train and pay local residents to run local consultation sessions and summarise responses to feed into the process.
Above all, talk to those who may be unhappy with your policies. They often have a good reason, which you need to bear in mind whether or not you can change the policy, or its detail, as a result. And don’t hesitate to let your decision maker have a short note of what you have learned. It might just make him or her think twice.
Be careful to frame your consultation questions in a neutral way - see the nice example at the bottom of this web page.
Pilots and test areas can be very useful, although politicians may be concerned that they send a signal that they aren't sure that the innovation is a good idea.
Finally, remember that there is a crucial difference between releasing information and informing the public. The wholesale release of vast amounts of data does not of itself inform anyone. There should of course be no question of hiding or distorting information, but care should be taken to ensure that the overall effect of the release of information is to improve recipients’ understanding of the issues (and the uncertainties) rather than simply to add to the confusion.
[Government officials are generally pretty keen to publish research and other evidence and many departments do publish huge amounts of material. But officials will be aware that their principal function is to support the government of the day, and they may therefore on occasion ask themselves whether publication will cast too much doubt on settled government policy.]
If the subject of your consultation is particularly controversial, or if you are to meet a potentially hostile audience, or hostile media, you should remember the following basic rules:
- Actions speak louder than words. The vast majority of your audience will respond wholly or mainly to the way in which you deliver your message. ‘Organisational body language’ is important. Do you act, write or sound patronising, worried and harassed? Or do you act and sound calm, sympathetic and in control?
- Do not dismiss concerns, however silly you think they sound. If it appears that you do not respect basic human concerns, how can you then be trusted to come up with sensible policies?
- Instead, listen carefully and emphasise your own concern. Then commit to continuing speedy enquiries, taking proper advice and reaching an early sensible conclusion on the best way forward. Stress that the process will be participative and open, and that you will publish any scientific or other expert advice and the assumptions upon which it is based. Remember that the public will trust you much more if you admit to uncertainty, and that the public may well be less concerned about the problem than the media.
- Explain the benefits of your proposed approach. Stress that your reaction to any problem will not be ‘knee-jerk’, and you will not patronise or nanny the public. If regulation might be needed, explain how this will protect the public and why other options would not work. If regulation is likely to be unnecessary, stress that you believe it right that the public should be allowed to make their own assessment of the problem, and the associated costs, risks and benefits, and react as they wish.
- A small but crucial minority in your audience will be opinion formers who will want to understand the underlying issues and will analyse your response very carefully. Get the majority of them to accept your credibility, and respect your openness, and they will sustain you against much unfair comment.
- Do not say that a particular option would be ‘too expensive’. Who are you to say that?
- Do not express concern that action to protect the public would harm industry, for this will reinforce any concern that a risk is being transferred from those who are benefiting from it onto those who are not.
- Membership of advisory groups should be broadly based, and not confined to scientists and other professionals.
- When dealing with risks to health and safety, remember that nothing in this world is entirely ‘safe’. The Government’s job is to ensure that everything is ‘safe enough’.
And, anyway, people will adjust
It is also important to remember that you are dealing with a dynamic situation, not a static laboratory experiment. For instance, because we each seek to arrive at our personal balance between cost and benefit, we will intuitively adjust our behaviour to avoid, or mitigate the effect of an increased risk, and vice versa for a reduced risk. The observed effect of an increased or reduced risk is therefore often unpredictable. This particularly applies where (as in the case of road safety) most of us have intuitively established the level of risk with which we feel comfortable. To take a simple example, if a winding road is to be straightened or widened, you would not assume that drivers (or the NHS) would pocket the value of all the increased safety. Instead, most drivers would speed up – accepting some of the risk for themselves, and transferring some of the risk to pedestrians etc.
Another aspect of the same phenomenon is that the public or business community will usually adjust their behaviour to cope with an unwelcome development, or simply just get used to it. This is why environmental groups, for instance, are so keen to stop certain developments before they become established as precedents. Their response may seem to be out of proportion to the harm done by the proposed development but it might make a great deal of sense in the wider scheme of things. Do not therefore underestimate or patronise such lobby groups.
It is also often the case that widely divergent views are not so far apart as they seem. I was very struck by a 2012 report of two economists' supposedly very different attitudes to austerity. It turned out that they agreed on a great deal, and their policy recommendations weren't so far apart after all.
Remember, too, that the public's response to questionnaires depends very much upon the way that the question is put. There is a nice 2016 example to the right.
Indeed, once a policy decision has been implemented, it can be very difficult to tell whether it was correct, and it also becomes very difficult to get back to where you began. Who knows, for instance, whether it was right to give planning permission to certain large developments? But any attempt to knock them down would cause an uproar, from those who live in, work in or supply them, or from those who have simply grown fond of them (Battersea Power Station, for instance). I sometimes wonder what would have happened if our predecessors had known for certain that motor vehicles would end up causing one million deaths a year around the world. So don’t get too upset when a Minister takes an apparently illogical decision. The Great British Public will probably find a way of adjusting to the decision, if not actually circumventing it.
Advice for Officials