#PDNI: Consultation in the 21st Century for Northern Ireland and beyond…

Consultation is a bit like sex. If you are not enjoying it, you are probably are doing something wrong. As you will already know from Alan there was a fascinating seminar (that sadly I couldn’t get to) which asks how policy-making might be done in the age of austerity?

It hardly bear repeating that the world has changed. The internet from its very earliest days as a home for software building geeks to share ideas and harsh banter, has allowed people to connect with one another. And because people could connect, they did.

But the social media revolution the net has give rise to has fundamentally altered the environment in which policy-making takes place. Those processes will have to be re-engineered to accommodate the new realities in which many of us ordinary folk are living.

This poses real problems for those inside government. How do you communicate with people outside the bureaucratic bubble, when all the traditional forms you ever used are slowly falling apart and losing processing resources themselves.

Despite the reality of PRs outnumbering journos, there is also pressure on government, both financial and political, to lower the amount spent on communicating with the various critical publics that rely on (and pay for) the kinds of functional and regulatory services that come under the public purview.

That pressure is not going away any time soon. As one political insider put to me yesterday, “we’ve had 12 years of unremitting growth, we’re now in for twelve years of unremitting pain”.

The internet, of course is (or should be) low cost, and there are other low tech opportunities to connect with a willing and intelligent commons which can flow fluidly towards matter of it own interest and far beyond the highly interested confines of the lobby.

Of course it certainly matters how you communicate. The mere appeal to authority doesn’t work any more. From the Brent Spar incident when Shell won the scientific case, put lost the public one, it has long been recognised that this is a ‘show me’, not a ‘tell me’ paradigm.

Institutional walls are increasingly porous and, as Rhion Jones of the Consultation Institute, rightly points out the expectations on the part of (some parts of) the public that they be included are now sky high. If you’ve not picked up on Alan’s post here’s Rhion’s audioboo précis of the White Paper:

In the preface Rhion identifies four contemporary challenges:

Most prominent is the accelerating impact of Government expenditure reductions, but equally significant is the institutional instability caused by reorganisations and other changes; third is a quiet revolution in public expectations for involvement as people use social media and related technologies to run campaigns to argue their case. Finally there is the clamour for evidence-based policy-making and the acceptance of transparency. Modern policy-making is now done as if in a goldfish bowl; everyone can see what is going on.

This last is critical. And it is one of the things that makes senior civil servants and politicians almost terminally nervous. Yet it is something that should be seen as a critical advantage.

The key is, as I mentioned in a Q&A recently (youtube to be added), to front end the risk of asking people what they think when:

– one, it’s less expensive;

– two, it helps bed down the initiative with a wider provenance so that if and when a public firestorm comes, you know better than the journos and the bloggers why you’ve done what you’ve done.

– three, you make better policy if only by using public intelligence to weed out the dead ends.

It also allows public (no less than private) institutions an ‘in’ at the front end. This is something that today’s white paper reiterates:

…four years ago, the Sunningdale Institute pinpointed major weaknesses in the Whitehall civil service model, by demonstrating that policy-makers were too far removed from the realities of front-line service delivery to develop effective solutions.

Which is all very fine. But in the British (and Irish) Civil Service is, as has been said, there are ways that things are done. And admitting publicly that you don’t know quite what to do is not one of them.

I heard a long time ago from a wiser head than mine, that the only real legitimate reason for asking a question is that you want (or better, need) to hear the answer.

Confessing (with a functional purpose) that ignorance in public can be a powerful to start the kinds of conversations that provide the ground work for functional, 21st Century policy.

There is, across the west, a general loss of confidence in the public service. It’s given way to a sense that everyone is out to get us. That requires a shift from the back to the front foot.

To close, here’s an extract from a talk I gave in Washington just before Christmas on the need to place ‘value’ as the core concern in any attempt to engage the public:

You can pick up more the feed from Twitter on today’s event by following the hashtag: #pdni

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  • wild turkey

    “Consultation is a bit like sex. If you are not enjoying it, you are probably are doing something wrong.”

    Dr Mick. stick with the day job (at which you are innovative, energetic,empathetic and,ah, patient) and leave the counselling bit to the likes of Dr Pamela Stephenson et.al. anyways…
    .
    “it has long been recognised that this is a ‘show me’, not a ‘tell me’ paradigm”

    I would take a step further, or in a different direction perhaps. consultees need and deserve a sense that policy makers genuinely “listen” to them.

    those who respond to policy consultations tend be those in the frontline of delivery or receipt of relevant services/outputs. in a previous incarnation, have worked extensively around and with equality impact assessments (EQIAs) it was usually the case that there was little evidence that points made in consultation responses were given due consideration. there was also a paucity of examples where policies were adjusted, changed or jettisoned because of consultees analysis and comments.
    how much of this is due to personal inability or an institutionalised civil service culture which is loathe to acknowledge the incompetence and error is anyones guess.

    “Finally there is the clamour for evidence-based policy-making and the acceptance of transparency. Modern policy-making is now done as if in a goldfish bowl; everyone can see what is going on.”

    i would strongly question the assertion that everyone can see what is going on. evidence base? sluggers dogged and at times solitary on the all the issues surrounding NI Water. Some might argue that per se the issues involved were not top shelf policy issues. Regardless, the lack of clarity,honesty and transparency in this matter belies any assertion that policy makers operate in anything approach a transparent environment. they prefer the shadows …or the moonlight. .

    John Randolph of Virginia once described a colleague, who he said was a man of splendid abilities but utterly corrupt, as being like rotten mackerel by moonlight that both shines and stinks at the same time.

  • Mick Fealty

    Extreme cases don’t make great law. The ‘discussion’ we hosted on Community Assets Transfer for Queens was a good example of what good consultation can be.

    Take a policy area, do some robust research on it, and then rather than just punt out the final report, get people on the ground, ie at the sharp end of the operation to tell you what the value is, but also what the blocks are.

    The indirect feedback on that project both from inside government silos and people in the field has been good.

    I’ll not deny it’s edgey territory, and it caused some discomfort through the process, but I also think as well as earning Slugger some revenue for a change it was something we are keen to scale up in future.

    Just so long as there is an understanding that the objective may fail in conventional terms, and there is no expectation to shill on behalf of an idea or the client organisation, then it will work.

  • Mick Fealty

    One of the things I would add is that what’s generally missing from the discourse both here on Slugger and more widely is policy content.

    We do have it, but it is fitful and opportunistic. As you say the NI Water story was not about policy. Yet policy matters particular given the capacity for damage to be in an age of austerity.

    There are a range of players that can and should be engaged from civil society who understand what’s happening and what could be done to limit such damage.

    The trade unions come immediately to mind. But that requires focus and a willingness over time for people to apply themselves to intricacies of specialist debate.

  • #pdni has proved a fascinating project for me and my http://www.consultationinstitute.org colleagues – how do we make policy in N. Ireland?

    How do we move away from static, often ‘tokenistic’ public consultations, to more meaningful engagement on the salient issues? Do we listen seriously enough to dissenting voices with alternative views? Do we deploy the huge technological capacity we all have on our desks or in our handheld devices?

    Those are the issues I have heard debated in recent days, but remain keen to hear wider range of opinions, especially from frontline service deliverers…

  • Mick Fealty

    There’s something in the stability of the current institutions that communicates ‘lock out’ to people. The staleness of assembly debate arises from the sense that bar as yet unseen crisis, the Assembly has no role other than to rubber stamp Executive decisions

    In wider discourse, the word dissent has also been connoted with the term dissident which was made popular in the era of the Soviet Union.

    Now this could create a confidence in the political leadership who are slowly resting responsibility for policy management away from senior civil servants to factor risk in at te beginning of their policy making cycles rather than the end.

    That’s what I argued for in Washington and what people should aim for here. The classic ‘does my bum look big in this?’ that come when it is too late to change the dress comes over as cynical and pointless.

  • The only ingredient lacking in how to engage people effectively is leadership and power. Power in whatever small doses it is apportioned, is valued so much in our type of society that people will only reluctantly give it away and share it with others. The whole concept of “consultation” has been so abused in Northern Ireland that it is fairly much meaningless and everyone knows this. Most don;t play along anymore and you get five, ten or maybe 20 people engaging in responses.

    The idea that some “non-specialist” policy makers can sit in a room, brainstorm out some ideas and test them with people they know and then put a done deal out for yes or no is so outdated that it is funny that people even accept that it is used.

    Even in public tenders for undertaking consultation – the process is already wrapped up so there is no opportunity for creativity in approaches to engagement and the old workshop format is put forward with the usual suspects attending.

    The only effective engagement process that works is to have all the relevant parties in the room. I say relevant which is a long way from having all the parties in the room.

    When they are all there the conversations that matter can be had, people who are recipients of the service under discussion are able to say what works, the people with the money can say if the resources are available and the legislators are there to say that it is possible.

    Now the trick is getting them in the room, and even ahead of that – the decision that this even-playing field, democratic
    dialogue based process is the way to do things.

    In 90% of cases someone who is scared of losing their power will refuse to sanction such a process, on the other hand those that do gain the benefits.

    This type of process is cheaper, longer lasting and has more reliable implementation built in. It recognises that writing the policy has nearly nothing to do with its implementation.

    It’s too easy to see but no calls it for what it is. Power my friends, dirty grubby power in small offices and not much to lose but what little power is in those hands is prized above all else.

  • aquifer

    Nowadays it is very important to precisely define the problem that is to be fixed, as there may be some cheap creative way to fix it using the new communications technologies, or someone else in another country may have thought of a better policy response years ago. Statistically it is very likely that someone else elsewhere does know better.

    Also, if policy crystallises into legislation regulations and bureaucratic structures they may assume a life independent of the original need. Especially if the original problem was not well defined, so that nobody may notice that policy has become less productive or even counterproductive, or if the need for it has been overtaken by social or economic change. Legislation does not contain much rationale or background to problems so laws can be out of date without anyone really noticing.

    Evidence is so valuable senior people will want to discount or inflate it, so it needs guarding and auditing just like money.

    Consultation should start with defining the problem, not proposing solutions.

  • Aquifer

    “Also, if policy crystallises into legislation regulations and bureaucratic structures they may assume a life independent of the original need. Especially if the original problem was not well defined, so that nobody may notice that policy has become less productive or even counterproductive, or if the need for it has been overtaken by social or economic change.”

    This seems like a good point – do you have any practical examples of this in Northern Ireland?

    I disagree with your point about needing to define a problem. Problem solving is not a useful way to make policy nor indeed to make any decisions. If you are in problem solving mode then you will chase the problem, magnifying it and giving it greater prominence.

    The biggest issues of todays society are not problems per se, but issues – complex adaptive issues which have multiple strands and causalities. A good example is alcohol dependency. In Northern Ireland the cost of dealing with alcohol is somewhere in the region of £600 million annually. That includes social services, security, courts, probation. absence from work etc. The causes are myriad. We cannot solve alcohol issues without considering aspirations of families, the advertising, the promotions, the sanctions, the schools and sports organisations, the intervention services.

    The issue for policy makers is often one of being overwhelmed and only taking on what they can control.

    The same can be seen in terms of the Strategic Energy Framework which has hugely ambitious targets which will never be met because planning and business, and supply, and regulation are not joined up in any way in a consensus on what has to happen, never name the consumer who will have to pay – again.

    The same goes for Shared Futures, The Maze, The mess over the sports stadia which never reached agreement, the reform of health and social care, the RPA for Local Government. All of these issues are connected by the failure to bring the relevant parties together in a way that promoted agreement through dialogue.

  • Mick Fealty

    Some of this stuff is the problem of politicians. Ironically we’ve see some of the great things that can happen when there is political will.

    But look at the fallout from the inability of the politicians and various players to deliver a world class stadium in Belfast/Lisburn.

    Some decisions are properly owned by those we elect to make them. They can’t be put out for any *meaningful* consultation because they are a matter of political will.

    At other times, the problem description exercise that aquifer suggest, is all that’s needed. That’s pretty much all we did in the community asset transfer project.

    We need to break down the idea that there is a single generic way of doing these things. And it is not about transparency either.

    Think about what you know, then think about what you know you don’t know and even consider the possibility you might be told what you did know you knew.

    If discovering any or all of those things is likely to enhance the project, then get weaving… and design your process in a way that will help find those things out.

    By and large, people want to help and will if you take them and their knowledge seriously.

  • I’d disagree that political led decisions are in any significant way different to any big strategic decision. Politicians are one player, among many.

    I’d suggest that the right process in any situation brings the politicians together face to face with the constituents and the stakeholders who need to be in on the debate. If its feasible, affordable, desirable, and will deliver better results then the case can be made for it. If it costs money and doesn’t deliver results then the right people won’t be long letting you know.

    Don’t define a problem – but do define a job to be done! People are task-oriented by nature – not problem solvers. People collaborate where they have shared purpose. Creating something new, resolving an issue or getting imaginative around a recognised pressure is a better idea.

    A nice example that is live is the National Park debate that has gotten all pike and pitch-forky in the Mournes because – the EHS went out and said to the public in town hall meetings: there’s going to be a National park here – do you want it? People said No F*%&£n way buddy. It was the process that got them to do that.

    The better process would be to ask people what is your preferred way of life here in the future given that loads of people want to visit and there’s jobs in it. That way people could express anxiety and nervousness about liability and regulations and still be inside the process. The answer to everyones issues would probably be a National Park. instead it is a divisive and desperate issue that has brought the worst out in people – even those who are probably nice in other circumstances.