England & Wales

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.