The Cabinet Office has issued a revised set of consultation principles. Stuart Thomson looks at the key changes.
Consultation is a main feature of public affairs activity. There is the need both to engage in consultations and also run consultations as well. The Government has now published a revised set of consultation principles that will have a direct impact on public affairs.
Consultations are a primary way in which Government shows that it is engaging widely. The engagement is often centered on policy development and /or efforts to agree a way forward for the policy. Consultations are also a good way for departments to publicise an issue and demonstrate that they are open to ideas and discussion.
Too often though consultations continue to be accused of being too short, not inclusive enough, not publicised, not feeding back and, worst of all, being nothing but a fig leaf for a decision that has already been made.
The same accusations are also made of local consultations as well – those run by schools, the NHS and others.
Poor consultation also continues to be an area of successful legal challenge as well. There is a whole set of case law out there where consultations have been challenged and, in many instances, have had to be re-run.
The Cabinet Office’s revised set of principles are intended to act as guidance for Government departments on carrying out consultations to help overcome such problems. They are an updated version of some principles published in 2012 which in turn replaced the 2008 Code of Consultation and are intended to have been amended in line with feedback received from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee.
Some points to note about the 2016 principles include:
- Purpose of consultation – the principles encourage departments to ask departmental lawyers whether there is a ‘legal duty to consult’ and not to consult ‘for the sake of it’.
- Length of consultations – the 2012 principles suggested shorter consultations than the previously accepted standard of 12 weeks should be considered by departments if appropriate, with a minimum length of two weeks suggested. Following criticism from the Scrutiny Committee (and others) that a two-week consultation would be ‘unworkable’ the new principles have done away with a suggested duration altogether and now recommend that departments consult for a ‘proportionate amount of time’ taking into account legal advice and the nature and impact of the proposal.
- Response to consultation – the government have taken into account the committee’s suggestion that the principles should make it explicit that departments should always publish a timely government response to a consultation by suggesting that a response should be published within 12 weeks.
- Digital by default – the 2012 principles recommended that departments use digital methods of consultation by default but have scaled back on this in the new principles by recommending that departments consider whether new digital tools are appropriate.
There was also a written ministerial statement on the revised principles as well.
The principles are important both for their actual content but also because they set the expectations of how others, particularly the public, believe consultation should be conducted.
Organisations will also be expected to follow similar principles as well so whilst they are primarily focused on government departments, they apply to everyone else as well. The principles are the starting point for consultations. It is what we will be held to account by.
Your consultation should reflect these latest developments.