Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 480 - 499)



  480. All public bodies?
  (Mr Rees) The code itself applies primarily to central government by which we mean departments and agencies. We then have non-departmental public bodies and, as the code says, we expect ministers to try to apply it to those as well, although as you well know some of them have their own statutory constraints. That is a slightly further area. As the minister just said, the principles apply more broadly to local government under the Best Value regime, to the Health Service, where there are different rules applying, so the principles apply across the public sector; the code itself is primarily aimed at central government.
  (Mr McCartney) In terms of the voluntary sector with the Home Office, the discussion just now about a compact between the voluntary sector and the Home Office in respect of appropriate consultations with the voluntary sector, we would like to see that compact being able to be put in place on the same basis of what we are saying here today.

  481. We have a Charter Mark scheme which rewards good practice in the public sector. Would one way of developing good practice in this area be through giving Charter Mark awards or something similar, good consultation awards, so for people who really do engage in innovative kinds of public participation where the feedback into the decision making process is clear, some kind of award system could be developed, particularly to develop that.
  (Mr McCartney) It is an idea which I instantly find favour with. Perhaps that could be part of your views as a Committee. In principle, the whole concept of the reward system is to identify a way in which a public body transforms in focusing on the customer rather than on themselves. Secondly, in doing that and improving services, it is important that they receive a public recognition for that factor. Obviously, consultation is one of those areas. In better government for older people, one of the key pilots we will be looking at is to improve consultation. By all means, if you want as a Committee to make a recommendation for that, we will look at it very seriously indeed.

Mr Trend

  482. Can I ask a couple of questions around how you make decisions informed by consultation? I am a fairly new Member of this Committee. I have not heard a lot of the evidence but that which I have heard and my own views on this matter definitely put me in the sceptical camp. A lot of the language used here is of pious platitudes. I am worried about what you would call the practical outcome of what happens. I think this would be true whatever government was in power. Clearly, we as politicians say that we are going to consult people and we make warm and friendly noises towards people but at the same time we understand very well that we are discussing here the exercise of power. Is there any thought being given to how consultation can cut people being consulted into the decision making process? I can give you many examples over perhaps hundreds of years where people have appeared to consult but have not actually wanted to relinquish any exercise of power. Is thought being given to making that more formal?
  (Mr McCartney) You must have trained to be a special adviser.

  483. No; I was one of the few who has not.
  (Mr McCartney) I was going to suggest that special advisers had invented the system of pious platitudes. I have tried in a very positive way to show not just what the government policy is but a sense of enthusiasm here, a sense of vision, if that is not sounding too platitudinous. This is not worth a candle if you cannot and do not involve people from the outset in what the outcome shall be. Therefore, whether it is a group of businessmen looking at issues around Europe or a group of pensioners looking at transport policy in the local community or a group of residents looking at the regeneration of their estate, those policies can only work if from the outset you sit down and discuss with them what their aspirations are and what they expect the outcome to be. What we are doing here is going wider than just the code. The code is setting out a set of basic minimum standards. What we need to move from the minimum standards is the practical aspect. One of the areas I would like to move to—this is not in my brief—is pre-consultation in many respects. Before we go out with the written work, the aspirations, the potentially different ways of doing a particular issue, we sit down. I did this in the Department of Trade and Industry. One of the most difficult areas of law in Britain for both employers, trade unions and the legal system has been the acquired rights directive. It is a very complex, difficult area of work. We had a requirement to refurbish this. Rather than going to consultation, we established a pre-consultation committee made up of all of those three groups, the legal profession, the trade unions and employers. They took ownership of the process. As a consequence, consultation that will come from that— although I am not in the DTI now—is in the ownership of that group they have between themselves been able to note out the difficult areas of policy, the differences between them, and bring them together. If the consultation document will come out, it is not one that has been established by officials and politicians in isolation. The practitioners who are involved on a day to day basis in the front lines, who deal with this complex area of law, have been involved right at the outset in putting forward what the solution should be. I think we need to do more of this across the board.

  484. As a constituency MP, I am involved in a question with the DETR about night flights into Heathrow. I would personally ban them all, but that is a different point. There has been a consultation exercise going on from the department. We are on the third step of it. It has come back again and again. It has been going on for about 18 months. As an MP, knowing that my constituents do not want any change in the current regime—they do not want it to be made worse by the government whose decision it is, and they consulted on the first occasion—I encouraged as many people as possible in my area to write in knowing that some weight would be given to the quantity of responses, if not the quality of the responses. There is no indication from the department how much weight is given to the number of submissions. It is very much an east/west thing, east of the airport, west of the airport, how many submissions I could excite from the west of the airport and how many other people could excite from the east of the airport. I do not understand the ground rules of the particular consultation exercise that is going on over Heathrow. To be cynical again, I think the government probably had made up its mind from the beginning and was trying to find a gentle way of steering us to a position where we get a compromise half of the night flights. That is rather complicated but what I want to know is was it worth me doing it? Can I know how the weighting was arrived at? What process went through ministerial minds in evaluating the responses?
  (Mr McCartney) First of all, one of the key factors with minimum standards is for departments to publish the outcome of the inquiry. Nobody ever weighs responses. It is quantity and quality, is it not? I cannot get into the details of your inquiry, although it is a very clever way of bringing up a constituency issue. The point you are making is: can you and your constituents expect in this new regime to have reasonable answers to the responses that have been put in? The answer is yes. Secondly, you are asking as a Member of Parliament what provisions are made to ensure that the qualitative nature of your constituents' response are adequately dealt with. We are saying in our minimum standards that ministers, in responding, have to give adequate answers to the decisions that they make. Thirdly, given you have raised the issue and you feel rather aggrieved at how the matter has been dealt with at the moment in the DETR, I will make you an offer. I will take on board what you have said and pass on your complaint to my colleagues in the DETR.

  485. They are fully aware of it. Despite the fact that this may look like special pleading, although I hope it does not, the reason the government has given for wanting to make a change is that they think it is fair. That is fine. I accept that. There are two things I do not understand about the process. First of all, the consultation papers—and I think this is true of most consultation papers I have read—are in immensely technical and complex language. It is very difficult for ordinary people in the street to get an idea of what is being asked of them. Secondly, I have no clear idea of how evaluation is made. Thirdly, in a sense those of us on one side of this argument do not feel we have been consulted if the exercise of power has gone against us and those who feel it has gone in their favour will feel they have. It seems to me there is a general, inescapable point here that people, if they feel their views have been agreed with, will think it was worthwhile and will not if their views have not been agreed with.
  (Mr McCartney) The point is well met in criterion six of the document where it makes it clear, to keep as full an account as possible of responses, formal or informal, to consultation: both to ensure that everyone's view is fairly considered but also to help address any allegation of privileged access. That is important too. We are at the start of a process. I confidently see, as time goes by, improvement being made in the minimum standards and the quality of the minimum standards, to get to the position, wherever the public wants to engage themselves with government in consultation, that whatever the outcome is likely to be from the start, there is a buy-in to the process because they trust the process. It is important that the processes are trusted even in the most complex and difficult areas like flying, for example. You talk about the issues around Heathrow Airport. Both myself and my colleague, Neil Turner from Wigan, have scars on our backs over the planning application about terminal two, Manchester. I understand the complexities and what happens in these situations but I am hoping, in an open minded way, I will be able set out that these minimum standards are about addressing some of the problems you raise.

  486. Can I try once more on the question of weighting, because it seems to me that when a department has a lot of responses to a consultation exercise there is clearly going to be some sort of weighting system used within the department to evaluate what is more significant in the mind of the government than others. I do not know if it is in the code. Is it possible for the weighting factors to be published before the consultation begins so that everybody understands? That in a sense does give you the ability to try and direct constituents or indeed interested parties in any issue to make their response in a way which may change the exercise of power.
  (Mr McCartney) There is not a weighting exercise where we take the post bags and put them on this side or that side. The issue here for a minister surely is about openness of decision making. There is an intellectual sense, to weigh up the argument and the debate and come to decisions and, having come to decisions, to set out clearly in user friendly fashion the reasons for coming to the conclusions he or she has come to. I think that is important.

  487. Could you do it in advance and say, "What is going to matter to us here is the number of people who write or the number of people who write about elderly relatives, if they are living near a road", or whatever? Clearly those factors are used when decisions are made.
  (Mr McCartney) The consultation documents, in the way in which they are written, will obviously set out the objectives that the government are trying to reach in terms of the issues concerned. The documents will want to be written not in the jargon that you have set out. That is a failure and it reduces access to decision making. We must get rid of that type of jargon, although there are occasions on technical issues where you have to use technical language but that should not be an excuse for writing gobbledygook and giving a reply in gobbledygook; then wondering why the policy is gobbledygook. We have to get rid of gobbledygook from beginning to end. You are asking me to give you a certainty about something I cannot. That is that each consultation document will have to be written on the basis of what the issue is. There is no hidden agenda here. It is based simply on crude analysis of the numbers of responses put in, the qualitative nature of the responses. It has to be processed in the system to make sure that is the case.

Mr McFall

  488. You mentioned post bags. I suppose a good example of a consultation is one that is happening today with the delegation in the central lobby. In the past, some people have seen consultation essentially as a management exercise, but what I am taking from what you are saying today is that you see MPs and other elected representatives having a greater role to play in that. Just give us an example, say, with regard to the Post Office or what the Chancellor mentioned in his budget about pensioner credit. How should consultation be taken forward there and what role could we play in that?
  (Mr McCartney) I can deal with the Post Office. Without sounding arrogant, I am a bit of an authority in the sense that I was, until the last reshuffle, the minister responsible for the Post Office and the production of the White Paper. We commenced there with a one-line commitment in our party's manifesto at the last general election. I spent the first year in a complete consultation process with all of the stakeholders in the Post Office, the private postal parcel and postal services, the community organisations and groups that work with the Post Office and the main users of the Post Office services. As a consequence of that consultation, we produced the White Paper which then had a further consultation which will lead to the publication of the Postal Bill which will be about the methods of transforming the Post Office. In addition to that, there were a number of key issues in the Post Office which were critical to sub-postmasters and mistresses, one being the technology and the modernisation of the network. Therefore, we established at the DTI a group. On the group was the Post Office Board, the sub-postmasters and mistresses and the employees and the DTI. That committee was charged with the responsibility of ensuring that the technology platform was put in place and delivered in time; and, as a consequence of that, about the issues around the modernisation of the network. That is right at the heart of decision making. Despite what you may hear today, in quite a legitimate lobby, we are very acutely aware of involving everybody in the Post Office at the decision making process as well as the hopefully successful outcome of the modernisation of the postal network. In terms of the wider issues of other forms of consultation, I did say at the outset that we had opened a Pandora's Box. Once we start the process at local government level, at national government level, government quangos, the health authorities, opening up in an ever increasing way qualitative consultations with the communities or stakeholders, a number of things will flow from this. One, significant requests will be made on government to meet need, to change services, to invest in services. There will be increasing numbers of organisations in the community who want to have a say in the decision making process of the local authority. I reckon, in five or six years' time, unless political parties and government machines change the way in which they develop their ideas for policy, we will have a situation with the community over here, sitting down, discussing with officials, quangos, local government, decisions about their community and their services and politicians being over here, talking to themselves. Therefore, what we have started is a dynamic of where fundamental changes will have to take place and how politicians and political parties in the decision making regimes connect with the citizen in a very proactive way and respond in a very effective way to the demands placed on them by the citizens through the consultation process. I keep using the word "dynamic" but I believe that to be the case. When we come back in five years' time, the landscape will be completely different in terms of the demands being placed on us because of the quality of involvement of the community in the decision making process.

  489. You mentioned the consultation with the Post Office as a good example. I take the point you made about good consultation at the beginning of that spectrum. At the end of the spectrum, there is the delivery element but we are in the middle at the moment and it strikes me that a number of people have a misconception or they feel they have been disadvantaged. Whatever that is, they are down here to lobby us. That part of the spectrum in the middle is the one that has to be dealt with, even though there was good consultation at the beginning. We have to get to delivery and there has to be a better outcome; but a better outcome for whom? The government or the people? At that level, how best can we tackle it in the middle of the spectrum so that we get to the end of the spectrum, namely the delivery outcome, and how can MPs and others play a part in that so that they are not left on the sidelines as you alluded to earlier?
  (Mr McCartney) Increasingly, MPs like ministers will face the demand to be in front of their constituents on a regular basis, to be able to set out issues and to be consulted. A classic example surely must be increasingly, as we modernise the Health Service, Members of Parliament will be in the front line, sitting down in the community, discussing with them what it means in terms of their local community and acute services. Increasingly, I find as a local MP I am asked to chair meetings jointly between myself and the local authority on issues in the community, where they think the Member of Parliament is a conduit to bring people together. This is a new adventure for Members of Parliament. Not all Members of Parliament like to be put under such pressure. I do not mean that in a negative way. It is a new way of having to communicate with people and it is going to be a growing trend. This is politics about sectional interests. We have consultations and bringing people involved, but there are occasions where a sectional interest will take the view that they want to have their sectional interest above all else; or they believe that their sectional interest, unless they take a certain action, will be undermined by something else. The sectional interests of the sub-postmasters in this relationship is trying to give a message, but it is a message that has already been answered. The issue they asked to be answered was already answered to them over a year ago and is the position of the government. That is, anybody who wants to get their benefits from the Post Office through cash can do so but if they want to do it in a non-cash way, because we will have put in a technology platform, they can do that also. Therefore, I think we have responded in an effective way, and will continue to, to the modernisation of the postal network. Therefore, this is the dynamics of politics. It is the food and drink of politics and that is why, thank God, people can come here and lobby us and give us a hard time.


  490. I wonder if the draft code should not have said what you have just said, which is that no consultation exercise should simply be seen as a route for sectional interest.
  (Mr McCartney) I suppose I could add a lot of things to the code. One has, in collective responsibility terms, to get what one can in the system. What I have given you is a personal, political opinion about the dynamics of things. The code is about setting minimum standards and the processes it needs to apply. Sticking behind my brief, saying, "This is the process", there is a dynamic in all these processes but as we enter a whole range of other forms of consultation the dynamics change again. A classic example would be the single regeneration budget where increasingly we have learned from the mistakes of the past and you just cannot go into the community and say, "Here is some £3 million. We are going to refurbish your community. Be thankful for it." These processes have all collapsed. The demand now is consultation on the basis of an ownership of the project by the community itself. The ownership of the project is a critical factor in the successful outcome of it. That means local councillors, civil servants, the voluntary sector, council officials, are increasingly engaged on a day to day basis in decision making by residents in deciding what the priorities are in the community. I think that is a wonderful extension of democracy, personally. That is why I want to see minimum standards in there. We learn from these processes. We will involve people in a real sense in having an ownership of the process, both about the decision making but also about the type and range of services provided from the policy.

  491. Do you know when the report that is up and coming from the Cabinet Office, the performance innovation report which is seen by many people as very much part of this developing consultation process on the future of the Post Office, is going to appear?
  (Mr McCartney) I am not the responsible minister for it. It is Charles Clarke. The report is in its final stages of preparation, as I understand it, and out to consultation among ministers. I am assuming that, as we have done with all the PIU reports, as soon as we can after those consultations, we publish.

Mr Lepper

  492. Apologies for not being here at the start of the session. I was talking about the Post Office with constituents. All of us are used, from our own post bags, even before we invite constituents' views on particular issues, we get told them sometimes through what are clearly organised letters from particular groups, local or national. On the other hand, we have all had the experience as well where, as individual MPs, we have gradually become aware of the importance of an issue as the individual letters from constituents begin to arrive and they are clearly written from a very personal basis, rather than organised. On this issue of consultation, I can see that consulting with organised groups of people, whatever their interests might be, is perhaps a comparatively easy process—maybe I am wrong. It is making sure that individual citizens have their views taken into account through a consultation process which—again, maybe I am wrong—seems to me more difficult. I wonder if you can say something about different methods of consultation to suit those two different sorts of cases?
  (Mr McCartney) We have listening events that are very innovative on women's issues, older people and, alongside older people, a subset of that was Asian elders and how we can respond in improving services for them in communities, and young people. Those are key elements. What has fallen out of all of those has been significant development of policy. Either a new policy initiative has been taken on and developed and is in the process of being developed. Practical issues around the creation of new or improved services. For example, the Royal Ulster Constabulary and a new rape inquiry unit fell out of one of the consultations about public services. We have had day care centres for Asian elders being resources out of the consultation processes. For young people, a range of measures which were announced yesterday. If you want, I will send to the Committee a submission of the kind of practical things that have happened and, alongside the practical things, the fall out of policy development. Some have gone to PIUs. Major pieces of work have come out of this process of consultation and changes in policy.

Mr White

  493. One of the interesting things that has come out of the Cabinet Office is the PIU report. They have produced a number of interesting things, particularly wiring it up and adding it all up. It makes two points. Where do they go from there? Do they just sit on the shelf? One of the key points is about the feedback loop into policy making, how consultation becomes a feedback loop. I wonder if you could say a few things about that?
  (Mr McCartney) One of the advantages of upgrading and extending your consultation procedures has been a sea change in the way in which government speaks to itself in terms of decision making about policy. Significantly more cross cutting takes place in bringing together different departments who have different parts of the jigsaw to deliver. One, we are in agreement about what the jigsaw is and the priority placed by each department in fitting that piece into the picture. Secondly in cross cutting, as well as the deliberative stage of agreeing joint policy, there is the common approach. Hopefully we will see fruition of this in July in the Comprehensive Spending Review, the cross cutting exercises that are taking place there in terms of agreement of resources to deliver services on the ground. I think it is 15 different cross cutting initiatives. This will provide quite a radical shake-up of the decision making processes in government. This has not been easy, by the way, for officials or politicians to get out of these silos. What I have found very interesting, once they are out of the silos, how liberating it is and how cooperative people are. One of the areas where cooperation is critical—I give one example: drugs policy, where there is a clear ten year strategy and a number one priority for the government in a range of areas on drugs. Unless there is cross cutting, being a number one priority is not enough. It may be a number one priority for the Home Office but not for the department who has a piece of the jigsaw. The whole purpose of the cross cutting is to make sure there is an equality about the prioritisation of the delivery of the policy. That has been one of the most significant factors in coming out of these listening events that we have. The public are forcing government—very committed to doing it—to actually for the first time work together. The other factor is local government and other government bodies like the Benefits Agency and the Health Service. Increasingly out of the listening events we are seeing cross cooperation. The government is funding some of this. We are putting financial resources into the modernisation agenda. Organisations who come together for single gateway delivery of services and modernisation of services—we will help fund that process. That is gathering apace. That is why some of the other things like Charter Mark are working so well. It is seeing cooperation, a cross-fertilisation across government departments, local government and quangos, working together for the first time and almost merging for all practical purposes in delivering services on the ground.
  (Mr Rees) On the particular Performance and Innovation Unit reports you mentioned, both come with implementation plans. Both have therefore a timetable and the Modernising Government Project Board will ensure that they do not just rest on the shelf and that they are implemented.

  494. Some of us do not think, until you get budgets away from departments, you will make rapid progress but that is a debate for another day. Have you seen any evidence of departments using consultation exercises in order to win their arguments in the interdepartmental discussions?
  (Mr McCartney) All the time. It is the ace card to play. If you can come to a discussion internally in government and it is always the case that you have to prioritise; you always have to try to get other people on board for your case. The most telling way of putting a case in government now internally is not the big stick, "I am from the Treasury" or, "I am from the Cabinet Office." The big stick is the evidence that you bring with you of the constituents, whether it is pensioners or postmasters or postmistresses. That capacity there, within your hand; not just your knowledge about the debate and discussion, but the strength of that is a very strong bargaining tool when it comes to getting cooperation with colleagues. Increasingly, that is why some of the larger departments are extending the whole concept of consultation right down like single regeneration or whatever, because that feeds through. They get cooperation from other departments, DfEE, Department of Health, the Home Office. They are having to cooperate in a very effective way with John Prescott's department to deliver it because in the single regeneration budget the feedback from the communities is: "We want these things done on a cooperative, joined-up basis, not in the silos". That is my language, not theirs. It is becoming a very effective tool for ministers to use in trying to get their policies through.


  495. That is fascinating. Does that mean that the louder you shout the more you get?
  (Mr McCartney) No. The more intelligent you speak, the more likely you are to persuade people.

Mr White

  496. One of the things local government said to us about participation was that you had to set the boundaries and that one of the most inappropriate things was that you ask questions on things that you could not actually change. How much evidence from the code and how much evidence from other departments is there that that whole area has been addressed, about getting the appropriateness of the consultation?
  (Mr McCartney) The introduction to the code, paragraph five, says: "Consultation should never be undertaken about aspects of an issue about which the decision is inevitable, for whatever reason. The pretence of consultation simply causes cynicism and mistrust." There has to be an openness and an honesty about the process. There are always going to be situations in any consultation, are there not? Individuals or organisations will want to raise matters. The classic is in planning. I have always found in planning that nine out of ten submissions, when I was a member of a planning committee, were all very sympathetic but it was nothing to do with the planning application. However, the dynamics were and are now planning departments used to throw that in the bucket. The planning committee should be far more sensitive in the way of dealing with community and planning matters. There has to be an honesty and a transparency about the system. That is what the code says.

Mr Turner

  497. I was interested in your discussions on how things worked in the Cabinet.
  (Mr McCartney) The Cabinet Office. Do not ask me about the Cabinet.

  498. One of the differences I find between local government and central government is that you have a much stronger sense of cooperativeness within local government, or you can have, than you seem to get in central government. In other words, you can sit down with the chief officers and the senior councillors and work a policy through there. That does not seem to be the same in central government. Is the process that you are describing aimed at trying to achieve that in a better way?
  (Mr McCartney) Yes. Alongside the modernisation of government is the process of modernisation of the Civil Service. Increasingly, the problem is putting training in place for appropriate working relationships between ministers and civil servants, both at a senior management level and along a more cooperative, hands-on approach with front line staff. This is important. In government departments, large as they are, there is a leadership role to be played by ministers, a sense of clarity about the objectives, a sense of ownership about the policy and the capacity to harness the talents in the departments by having an open, transparent but very cooperative relationship with the front line staff and the senior management. That is what we have been trying to engender. This is not to challenge the impartiality of the Civil Service, in case somebody says so, but in truth, in large organisations like government departments, in the private sector, in big companies or local authorities, the more you try to engage in a partnership approach with everybody who is in the enterprise, the more effective you are in getting decisions from the thought stage to the stage of implementation. That will go on apace, in my view, increasingly as we modernise both the delivery of government and the Civil Service.

  499. You raised quangos earlier and the need to involve them in the consultation process. Who in the government at the moment is doing its Best Value process and community leadership in the Local Government Act and Bill that is going through now? There is no provision within there for local government to require other agencies and quangos to become part of that process. There is an expectation that they will become part of it but there is no requirement. Do you think it would be helpful if local authorities, associations, agencies etc., were going to do that properly, for them to have that requirement to be part of it, rather than having the ability to step aside?
  (Mr McCartney) What is happening at the moment is this increasing process of partnership cooperation and coordination. Every time we have available single regeneration, health or education action zones or whatever, all of these by the nature of them are established as a partnership from the outset. Sometimes they are a legal entity. The East Manchester Initiative, for example. It is not an either/or, is it? In some respects, we are bringing together, almost as a physical entity, an incorporation. In other areas it is a looser but still effective arrangement of cooperation and working together. The classic there is, for example, increasing the employment service in the Benefit Agency, working with local housing departments or finance departments or council tax offices. There is no legal way you can merge them for obvious reasons. However, they are essentially dealing with the same client group and the same information and increasingly wanting to operate a single gateway system. We are resourcing that. This is happening. We are not just giving them a Charter Mark. We are bringing the financial resources to see through that process of change. There is a myriad of things happening. Forcing people to work in partnership never works. It is a process of changing culture here, getting people from their own perspective to realise that there is a detailed partnership. I think we will see an increasing involvement of partnerships, some formal, some informal. This is not in my brief but, as time goes by, government agencies and others coming physically together where there is an appropriateness for that to happen. I think we will see again more of that.

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