Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence



LETTER FROM RT HON IAN MCCARTNEY, MP, MINISTER OF STATE, CABINET OFFICE

  I am writing to thank the Committee for giving me the opportunity to discuss issues surrounding the way in which government consults. I came away feeling that we had a positive and constructive discussion and look forward to seeing the Committee's report when it is published. I should also like to update you on actions which I promised to follow-up.

  I promised to invite committee members as guests to the Better Government for Older People event on 17 May. I understand that in my absence, Alan Whysall, Deputy Director of Modernising Public Services, has sent the invitations.

  I would very much welcome the Committee's comments on our draft Code of Practice on Consultation before the final version is published: the consultation period closes on 7 July.

  I said I would provide details of practical outcomes that have resulted from Cabinet Office consultations. These are attached to this letter and were also included with my letter to you of 30 March. Although it may be stretching the point to say that most of these are "practical" outcomes, they are making a major contribution to policy development across Whitehall. As I am sure you will agree, consultation is part of a wider process of basing policies on the evidence of what people.

  My officials have sent a copy of the e-government strategy paper to the Committee Clerk.

  As I mentioned on 12 April, the draft Code of practice on written consultations sets out the Government's intention to set-up a web-based central register of public consultations. The register will appear on the 10 Downing Street web site (www.number-10.gov.uk), in the "Your Say" section. This already features a Policy Forum and Speaker's Corner. It will set out, grouped under subject or department, the basic details of public national consultations. It will incorporate a link in each case to the relevant departmental web site, where, in accordance with the terms of the Code, the full consultation document will be available, along with facilities for responding or making contact with the department by e-mail.

  The entries on the No.10 site will be updated when the consultation period ends, and again when decisions are announced in the light of it, also with appropriate links. Some consultations will be highly technical, and probably not appropriate for including on the No.10 site. But we propose that each department should maintain a page setting out a complete list of live consultations (as some already do) and those pages would also be linked from the No.10 site.

  We also plan to add a facility where members of the public, including business, can declare their interest in particular subject areas (eg health, agriculture, transport). When a new consultation is launched, they would then automatically be sent an e-mail, telling them about the consultation, and providing links to further details about it.

  We see this as an important step towards opening up consultations to people and interest groups, who have not been previously consulted. It should also relieve much of the burden on consultees.

  It is important that we promote high quality consultations. To help achieve this, we are planning to set-up later this year another, quite different, web-based aid to departments in making consultations more effective. This will be a best practice site, which will include links to previous consultations that have proven effective, and other guidance on devising worthwhile, value for money consultations.

  I would welcome any early thoughts the Committee have on both of these proposals, so that they can be taken into account in the design of the site when it first appears.

  We discussed recommendation 29 of the 6th Neill Committee Report. In particular, that there should be openness and prevention of privileged access during consultations and that a government Code of practice on written consultations would help here. Our draft Code of Practice, is in essence, a positive response to this recommendation. As for the wider government response, a reply is being prepared and will be presented to Parliament before the summer recess.

  Mr Trend MP raised concerns he had about the DETR consultation about night flights into Heathrow and I promised to look into these. My officials are pursuing this with DETR and as soon as I have a satisfactory reply, I will write to Mr Trend and send you a copy of my letter.

  I also promised to provide the outcome from various Cabinet Office consultations.

  The People's Panel is a nationally representative group of 5,000 people set up in 1998 to be consulted on a range of public service and other issues. It is a world-first at national level. It has been used so far for four major waves of research and several ad-hoc research projects. The Director of Modernising Public Services Group made a presentation to the Committee in December about the Panel.

  The People's Panel consultation into views on biosciences made a contribution to the review of the regulatory framework for genetic development. The biosciences work also influenced the work of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology. Their report on Science and Society makes extensive use of the data.

  Input to housing benchmarks: the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions used the Panel quickly to generate benchmarks on where people live, to inform the Urban White Paper and Housing Green Paper.

  Research, carried out by the Cabinet Office, into public services during certain life experiences (eg retirement, change of address) led to an action plan to encourage more responsive and joined up services. Service Action Teams, made up of representatives from various government departments, agencies and public services are now pursuing the objectives set out in the plan. More recently it has helped to identify services that are early candidates for extended hours service provision: we shall be announcing which services are involved in early April.

  We have made other use of consumer research too: for example we conducted a major survey in 1998 on people's attitudes to electronic government. The report of this is helping to inform our development of electronic services for the public, reflected in the e-government strategy paper.

  The Cabinet Office have held 10 Listening to Older People events across the UK between June and November 1999 to give older people opportunities to tell ministers directly about their needs and priorities for action. The process has culminated in a national listening event being held on 17 May.

  Conclusions will follow about the direction of policy and service provision relating to older people. The listening events are also feeding into the Better Government for Older People programme. This programme was run under the aegis of the Cabinet Office. It consisted of 28 local authority-led projects that pioneer better ways of consulting and involving older people at local level, and of designing public services that are more responsive to their needs.

  The Women's Unit in the Cabinet Office carried out a sustained Listening to Women exercise, reported on last October in an innovative magazine style publication called Voices. There were three elements to this campaign: focus groups conducted using the People's Panel, postcard questionnaires, and a series of 12 ministerial regional roadshows. Over 30,000 women participated in the exercise.

  The consultation work helped shape a number of Government responses for the future, also set out in Voices.

  The Listen-Up Campaign has been a joint Cabinet Office/Home Office initiative to encourage and facilitate constructive dialogue between Government and Young people. The consultation has taken place over the last year. We have worked with voluntary organisations to consult through youth groups, vox pops (meeting forums), web forums and an all-day event. The focus on looking at the different needs of young men and young women was also novel.

  The Listen-up report is helping to shape the way in which policies are developed affecting young people.

  We have used a range of consultation methods, including seminars with academics and stakeholders and Internet-based discussion forums to develop the Modernising Government White Paper. The Social Exclusion Unit undertook a range of consultations on truancy and school exclusions; rough sleeping; neighbourhood renewal; teenage pregnancy; and opportunities for 16 and 17 year olds not in training or employment. As well as written consultations on these issues, there were seminars with teachers, parents, pupils, voluntary organisations; meetings with rough sleepers; visits to day centres; visits to 17 cities and towns; face-to-face meetings with young people and parents; and discussion groups.

  The research has fed through into the reports of a large number of Policy Action Teams set up under the SEU initiative.

  The Cabinet Office's Performance and Innovation Unit (PIU) have conducted a number of consultations. Some have been in the form of straightforward paper-based work. Others have taken different forms.

  The electronic service delivery project is currently making use of the discussion forum on the No 10 Website (www.Number-10.gov.uk), with a short consultation document raising a number of questions for discussion on this site.

  The E-commerce@its.best.uk, Wiring It Up, Adding It Up, and active aging projects have involved a large number of meetings, workshops and seminars with stakeholders. They also made use of voting software systems as a way of getting a better feel for people's views. We are researching the possibility of using it more widely.

  PIU are also using focus groups and other consumer research through opinion polls as a way of getting views and testing emerging solutions, particularly in respect of parts of the community which may not be well represented by NGOs or other structures.

  While these will not lead directly to practical outcomes, they are making a major contribution to policy development.

  I hope you and the Committee find this information useful. Please do not hesitate to contact me if any further assistance can be given.

Ian McCartney

16 May 2000


 
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