Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 472 - 479)




  472. Good afternoon everyone. We are delighted to welcome the Minister this afternoon. This is the final session in our seemingly long running inquiry into innovations in public participation and it seemed appropriate to end with the voice of the Cabinet Office which we have in the form of the Minister of State, Ian McCartney. We are delighted to have you here. Would you like to make a statement to kick us off?
  (Mr McCartney) Just a short one and then we can perhaps get our jackets off and have, I hope, a significant discussion and debate. Can I make a couple of offers? It is important to me that I get some significant feedback from yourself on this and wider issues. Therefore, I will not do a final draft until I receive from your Committee your deliberations and I will try to incorporate that, not knowing in advance what you are going to suggest, of course. Secondly, we have an event on 17 May which is a culmination of Better Government for older people, a national event at QEII. I would like to issue an invitation to Members of the Committee who would like to come along as our guests and be able to first hand talk to those who have been involved in the process rather than just hearing it from me. Then you can judge what I believe the success of the programme is compared to what their assessment is.

  473. These are both excellent offers and I am sure we shall want to take you up on both of them.
  (Mr McCartney) Perhaps some time later in the year, I will come back at a later date and have a more detailed discussion with you on these matters. The Code of Practice which we are putting out on written consultation today is based on, first of all, making more open and effective response in terms of the government and its relationships. We see consultation as a central, key tool to improving policy making and services. There has to be a process in developing ideas and in the outcome of the idea is a modernised updating of services provided in the community. We want to make sure that consultation is in a continuum from the thinking out of the process of the idea to the end result in terms of improved services. We need to also tackle people's aspirations in a practical way. Again, the best use of consultation will bridge the gap between what people's perceptions are and what government can deliver, whether local or national government. We need to tap into citizens' ideas and experiences. There are lots of people out there who have spent a lifetime in the community. They have ideas and experiences and we need to be able to utilise their ideas as well as those of front line staff. The government also has to build meaningful relationships in the community with business and with community groups and organisations. Therefore, the consultation process is central to succeeding in these aims.

  474. We start, do we not, from a position where on the whole consultation has a bad name? Consultation over the years has become a kind of pejorative word meaning not really consulting but having to jump through some kind of formal hoop. Do we not start from that low point in trying to turn people's understanding of what it means around?
  (Mr McCartney) For a long time that has been the case. There has to be a connection; consultation has to be meaningful in the sense that there is an absolute clarity, that you are able to publish the outcome of the consultation, both of what has been said and what your intentions are in respect of addressing the issues that come up in the consultation. But another aspect of it must surely be results on the ground, to be able to show in a practical way that you have delivered. We will give examples here today of the kind of practical changes that have taken place through the consultation processes—work on better government for older people and young people, and also about Charter Mark, for example, where local authorities, the Health Service, the police, the fire service, all those involved in it, are delivering on the ground practical examples of change and better services for the communities they serve. If we can do those three things, people will see that consultation is a worthwhile exercise. Secondly, they will want to be increasingly involved in the outcomes of those consultations.

  475. Along the way of this inquiry, we have had people tell us that there are lots of guides around to how we should do all this. You are producing a new code now in draft form at the moment. What is new about it?
  (Mr McCartney) It is the first time ever that government has decided to grapple internally and externally with poor practice. On the one hand, you have a variance in quality of documents provided, inadequate response times, inadequate processes in terms of publicising results and a failure to monitor successfully and appropriately the exercises taking place. If there is poor practice, it is incumbent on the government, given what I said at the outset, to put in place standards which will require government departments, ministers and other public bodies to follow through. That is not enough either. Each consultation that goes out, from the outset, will have to set down what the standards are. If a minister does not carry out those standards, those who have been consulted will know immediately that that is the case. Secondly, if a minister wants to diverge from these standards, they will have to have a pretty good reason why. The Prime Minister is absolutely committed to this process of these high standards and developing and promoting them, not just for written consultation but to look at other forms of consultation and how we can improve them and how the government involves themselves in the consultation process.

  476. It strikes me that what is most novel about this is that here is a set of practices which are to be effectively binding on departments and public bodies. This is a quite new development, is it not?
  (Mr McCartney) It has literally never happened before. Whether this is because of inertia, departmentalitis or because there has not been a real sense of commitment to consultation, I was not in those positions in the previous government or in this government, but we have to start from here and see our experience so far in the first three years in the Cabinet Office and with other government departments in the rolling out of our policy programmes, that consultation has increasingly been seen by government departments, ministers, public servants, as a critical factor in the successful outcome of those programmes. Increasingly, even those who have been sceptical realise that you cannot succeed with complex programmes if at the outset there is not a buy-in from all the stakeholders and partners. Perhaps we have opened a Pandora's Box. We have done a lot but there is a lot more to be done. Having started the process, there is no turning back here. I believe we will see an extension in the programme, a whole lot of innovative ways of communicating in a more effective way both pre-consultation, consultation and in the outcome and how the service is delivered on the ground.

  477. When consultation exercises take place in future and are reported upon, will the reporting upon them carry with it indication or certification that they have taken place according to the code?
  (Mr McCartney) The fact that the code is placed within the context of each consultation document is a ready reckoner. Secondly, there is a requirement to set out in the public domain the outcome of the consultation process. As you have probably noticed, we are doing an exercise in terms of people's perceptions of how the consultation exercises have worked in practice and whether they can be improved on. This will be a continuing process of improvement. This is far from the final stop-off point. As we get into more sophisticated forms of consultation involvement—and we have been very innovative; perhaps at some stage we can talk about that with Jonathan and Alan—I do not see this as a stop-off point. I see this as a starting point.

  478. You see no contradiction between the idea of consultation as an innovative process that organisations own and develop for their own needs and the idea of a binding code from the centre?
  (Mr McCartney) No. The code is a dynamic factor here. If we are going to change culture, we suffer from two things in the system. One is the centralisation of policy making. We miss out on a great deal of people's experiences. Secondly, we miss out a sense of ownership at the point of when we decide to deliver the policy. Therefore, this is a dynamic process where we ensure that there are minimum standards in place. We see there is accountability of the ministers and others to carry out the process. Each case is assessed, whether the process has been adequate and can be improved, and at the other end, as well as doing that, there is a feedback as to what happened with the process. What services did we provide? Did we get new care services? Did we get new, joined-up benefits between the Benefit Agency on the one hand and local government on the other? Have we been able to introduce new transport policies related to people? There has to be that capacity to weigh up the benefits of the consultation with the practical outcome of the policy.

  479. How wide does this code go? You talk about public bodies. Which kind of public bodies are we talking about? Does it include local authorities, for example?
  (Mr McCartney) Local authorities, regional authorities, the public sector, in terms of consultation.

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