Select Committee on Public Administration Sixth Report


The Public Administration Select Committee has agreed to the following Report:—



1. Since it was set up in July 1997, one of the Committee's continuing interests has been the nature and extent of accountability. In November 1998 we announced a wide-ranging inquiry into how central government can be made properly and effectively accountable to the citizen for the services it provides. We have published two Reports on 'Ministerial Accountability and Parliamentary Questions.[2] In November 1999 we published a Report on the accountability of public bodies (quangos)[3] which we have now followed up with a report entitled 'Mapping the Quango State'.[4] We see the present inquiry announced on 28 October 2000 as a natural extension of our interest in accountability— in this case accountability to the public.

2. The Committee held ten sessions of oral evidence, hearing evidence from 34 witnesses, and received a number of excellent and informative memoranda some of which are appended to the Minutes of Evidence; others have been deposited in the Library of the House. We are grateful to all those who assisted us, in particular to our adviser Professor Vivien Lowndes of de Montfort University, and to the very many local authorities who sent us examples of participation exercises. We are also grateful to Professor Patrick Dunleavy, of the London School of Economics and Political Science, for his assistance in the final preparation of this Report.

3. An innovative feature of our inquiry was a commission to the Hansard Society for Parliamentary Government to conduct an on-line discussion for us on the participatory possibilities offered by the new electronic technologies. This commission was an new departure for a House of Commons Select Committee, and our example has since been followed by the Information Committee.[5]

4. Public participation embraces a wide range of activities by which citizens seek to influence policy-makers in the democratic process, and by which governments, councils and agencies seek to elicit the views of citizens on current or future policy issues. Among the key mechanisms, elections for the Westminster Parliament, the European Parliament and for local councils, are the most widespread and well-known. More recent and new forms of elections include those for the devolved Parliament in Edinburgh, the National Assembly in Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly, and elections for the London Mayor and Assembly in England. Below local authority level there are also elections for parish councils and elections among parents for school governing bodies. All these are important ways of establishing the legitimacy of elected bodies, ensuring that majority opinion can influence policy-making, and providing channels of accountability for elected representatives.

5. But elections happen relatively rarely; they count votes but do not take account of the strength of people's feelings; and they normally cover a wide range of issues. Additional public participation methods have been used extensively in the last few years. Referenda were used in all the four countries and areas where devolved bodies were proposed, and public acceptance of these important constitutional reforms was essential for the new bodies to be established. All major political parties are agreed that before Britain could enter the Euro a referendum with a positive vote would first be required. Local referenda have been held by at least three councils in England to seek citizens' view on raising local budgets and council taxes. The government has recently asked all councils in England to consult their citizens on potential changes to the ways in which council business is decided and undertaken, which may include new local votes. Public participation and consultation procedures are included in a wide range of legislative provisions, for instance in the preparation of local plans by councils and in many major health policy decisions. 'Best value' provisions entail local councils consulting their citizens on how services are being delivered and what might be improved, often via local opinion polls. Government departments also run regular polls, including the central People's Panel which seeks public views from a large representative sample, and departments and agencies conduct extensive consultation exercises seeking the views of interest groups and ordinary citizens on current policy issues and choices. Finally there are very extensive and well established provisions for public enquiries to be held on planning-related issues covering highways, new construction and infra-structure developments, both to seek public views and to provide channels for property owners to defend their interests. All these diverse forms of public participation tend to be single-issue based, or even single-case based, allowing for much more specific and focused consideration of issues than is possible in an election encompassing multiple issues. They provide important safeguards for citizens that their legitimate interests will be considered by policy-makers, and are widely accepted as essential corollaries of liberal democratic politics.

6. Most of the time the signals for policy-makers generated in elections and in additional participation procedures will be consistent. But sometimes they may diverge. Some unpopular decisions may well have to be made by elected representatives, with adverse consequences for part of an area or part of society that are unavoidable. Sometimes participation procedures may attract greater involvement from organised interests with distinctive or strongly-held views out of line with those of voters as a whole. Participation procedures can also attract much less involvement than mainstream elections, raising issues about the representativeness of the views expressed. Elected representatives - Members of Parliament (MPs), Members of Scottish Parliament (MSP), Members of the Welsh Assembly (MWAs), Members of European Parliament (MEPS) and councillors - will always have to weigh carefully the evidence of public attitudes and priorities which participation mechanisms provide. And public service managers in non-elected bodies will also have to ensure that they consider carefully the quality and character of the feedback generated by consultation and participation procedures. In many cases conflicts or dilemmas may arise which need careful and sensitive management.

7. But these difficulties can be minimised by providing participation opportunities in the most effective ways, and using the full range of modern techniques appropriately designed for the purposes which elected representatives or public service managers have in mind when setting up participation or consultation procedures. Different mechanisms can be used to: secure a snapshot of the views of citizens about an issue (such as a referendum, or informal phone poll or Web poll); or about a range of issues (such as a representative sample survey or a set of focus groups); or bring to the surface the views of concerned parties to decisions (such as traditional consultation exercises for stake-holders, or the provision of internet-based access to decision-making); or to allow ordinary people to think through issues, choices and priorities for one service or for a local area (such as Citizens' Juries or other more 'deliberative' mechanisms); or simply to extend the information available to citizens and increase the routes open for them to contact decision-makers (such as moving to 'open book' government on the internet and Web, perhaps with extended opportunities for citizens to e-mail or phone up about issues).

8. In this Report we review first the ways in which central government is organised to encourage citizen participation, ranging from the fostering of voting in elections through consulting the public and more innovative forms of public participation and encouraging 'civic voluntarism' . Part 2 looks at the much more diverse picture of participation in local government, establishing first the guidance provided to councils, health authorities and other local bodies; then moving on to examine developments in local participation; and finally considering the wider context of participation in local government. Part 3 examines three interesting innovations in participation methods: 'deliberative democracy' methods; the growth of e-governance and its implications for participation; and the central government experiment with a large People's Panel. Part 4 looks at some possible implications for Parliament and Part 5 gives the Committee's conclusions and recommendations.

Part 1: Central Government Arrangements for Promoting Public Participation

9. At a national level the chief central departments with responsibility for public participation are:

  • the Home Office is responsible for organising national elections and referendums, linking with a network of local returning officers, normally the chief executives of district or borough councils;

  • the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) has the lead responsibility for organising local elections and for overseeing the public participation and consultation arrangements of local government;

  • the Cabinet Office provides the civil service, Next Steps agencies and executive non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs) with advice on open government and the new Freedom of Information Act and gives general guidance on how central government public consultations should be organised;

  • many other central departments play important roles in public participation arrangements in individual policy areas. For instance, the Department of Health overviews public consultation and participation arrangements in the National Health Service (NHS); and different sections of DETR supervise the planning inquiry and plan-making system and the operations of public inquiries into transport projects and major infra-structures. We briefly review the current state of play in terms of: elections and party politics; traditional consultation; more extensive forms of public participation; and 'civic voluntarism'.

Elections and party politics

10. Elections and party politics have rarely been actively organised so as to encourage participation in British government. The essential rules for conducting elections have been established in their current form for the whole of the twentieth century, with local authorities registering voters, providing polling stations and impartial counters, and checking that corrupt or undesirable election practices do not intrude. In recent years the Home Office has made important efforts to ensure that the electoral register is kept up to date and includes as many people as feasible, following a significant drop in registration during the period of the poll tax in the early 1990s. 'Rolling registration' has made it easier for citizens to ensure their right to vote, and registration efforts have been supported by advertising campaigns on TV and in newspapers.

11. But there has traditionally been little or no advertising designed to encourage people to vote at election times (outside Northern Ireland), and election practices have not been very encouraging in some respects - for instance, polling stations are set out on traditional lines without visual aids, and ballot papers contain relatively little information and are not designed in a modern way to be easy to use. Only for local elections has the government been more active in encouraging local authorities to experiment with different ways to increase turnout, including all-postal voting, longer opening hours and more accessible locations for polling stations, or allowing people to vote over longer periods than a single day. In general the results of these trials have not shown major improvements, except for the all-postal votes approach. It remains to be seen whether improved voting levels here were just a 'novelty effect', or whether they can be generalized from a few trial locations to become a regular feature of local elections.

12. Many of our witnesses were concerned about the trend towards lower rates of voting in elections which became apparent in Britain in the late 1990s, especially those for local authorities. We accept that there has been no 'golden age' of electoral turnout, but share the concern that this may be something more than the normal cyclical fluctuation. In the past the most likely people to vote have been those with longer education periods, 'middle class' occupations and perhaps a university degree. In recent years all these groups have increased in size in Britain, but voting rates have fallen quite sharply. In 1997 the general election turnout at just over 71 per cent was the lowest since 1951. And some recent informed estimates by opinion polls suggest that the next general election might see turnout fall further. (There has been a trend for falling turnout in some other countries, most recently in Canada). In UK local elections turnout has fallen sharply since the mid 1990s (when there were lively controversies about the poll tax, rate capping and other issues of local interest), to around 28 per cent in the 1999 and 2000 elections in England and Wales. These levels were well down from the peaks of around 45 per cent local election turnout achieved in London and other areas in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the European Parliament election turnout fell dramatically, from 34 per cent in 1994 to just 24 per cent in July 1999 - much the lowest on record since these elections began in 1979. Low levels of voting have also been occurring in Westminster by-elections and in the dozens of local by-elections for council seats which occur each year. The one brighter spot concerns elections for the new devolved bodies, with 60 per cent of Scottish voters going to the polls for the Edinburgh Parliament, and 50 per cent of Welsh voters for the Assembly. Turnout for the London Mayor and Assembly in May 2000 was 35 per cent. All these turnouts may look low compared to general election figures, but of course they are for new bodies which have never existed before. And if general election turnout does fall into the 60 per cent range then it may not be sensible to think of some of these elections any longer as 'secondary elections'. For instance, Scottish politics may come to revolve almost as much around the Edinburgh Parliament as around Westminster, especially if the two legislatures attract similar levels of electoral participation.

13. The importance of actively encouraging or maintaining participation in elections has been widely acknowledged in recent years. The Government's 1998 Consultation Paper Modernising Local Government: Local Democracy and Community Leadership says:

    'Elections are the prime way in which the will of a community is expressed on the policies and services which will directly affect their daily lives. The more people vote, the greater the democratic legitimacy of actions taken by those elected. Participation in elections is therefore crucial to, and a good barometer of, the health of democracy'.

By this measure, there is widespread agreement that the UK confronts a substantial problem. Modernising Local Government: In touch with the People tells us that 'over the past years average turnout in local elections has been around 40 per cent and sometimes much less' - among the lowest in the European Union.[6] Professor Stewart told us 'since 1997 there have been very significant falls in turn-out, which is reflected not merely in local elections but in the European elections and in recent by-elections.'[7] Decreased voting also has adverse implications for the major political parties, 'the true aggregating institutions in this country'[8] according to Professor Christine Bellamy. Not only is membership 'falling through the floor[9] but politicians are increasingly mistrusted and representative government is adversely affected. Birmingham City Council told us that a common theme in submissions to their Democracy Commission, set up to involve non-councillors in deciding the future structure of the local authority, was dislike of party politics and the perception that elected representatives put their party first and their constituents second.[10] This perception is also evident in a large-scale study of citizens' perspectives on participation in local government conducted by De Montfort University.[11]

14. The inter-relationship between formal political engagement via elections and party politics, and more single-issue forms of public participation, is an important one. While traditional political activity declines, selective participation and single-issue politics are still increasing. Professor Dunleavy pointed out the dangers inherent in these parallel processes, explaining that selective participation is no substitute for traditional electoral politics and saying that low turnout levels mean 'that the normal cross-checking which you have on selective participation from citizens in general is reducing'.[12] Selective participation can reinforce the exclusion of disadvantaged groups from the decision-making process. Even well-intentioned public participation exercises can reinforce this tendency. Some enthusiasts for change, like Professor Stoker, think that increasing public participation will indeed rekindle enthusiasm for traditional democracy. Others are more cautious. Professor Stewart told us that 'the research, because it is short-term, does not throw light on that. You can look at the turn-out figures, but, of course you are dealing with very small numbers here in respect of these, so you would not expect them to influence the turn-out figures'.[13] A participant at the IPPR/LGA seminar on 'Best Value in Public Consultation' held in June 1998 even suggested that 'a growth in consultation opportunities may actually diminish the perceived importance of voting'. But overall we agree with Professor Lowndes' judgement that 'the health of representative and participative democracy are intertwined'.

Traditional forms of consultation

15. Traditional forms of consultation continue to be widely used. The terms participation and consultation are sometimes used interchangeably, but actually have different meanings. A witness explained 'there is in fact a profound difference between the two, with participation being the generic term for a differentiated series of activities, often referred to as "the ladder of participation", with consultation one of the rungs on the ladder'.[14] The distinguishing feature of consultation is that it involves asking people for views on predetermined policy options, while participation refers to a broader range of ways in which the public may be involved in decision-making. The DETR argued in evidence to us that 'consultation must be genuine - more is lost by doing a bad piece of consultation than by not doing one at all'.[15] But a number of government departments also stressed the continued value of the older methods. The DETR suggested that many customers still prefer a conventional approach. And the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food explained that 'much of the Ministry's public participation and consultation over the last three years has been by the traditional method of publication followed by written replies'.[16] The Cabinet Office has recently reminded central government departments and agencies of the importance of undertaking consultation with the public in its publications Modernizing Government and Wiring it Up, and the long-standing 'open government' code initiated in 1992 under the previous government encourages agencies to provide information on current policy to citizens and interest groups. Posting government consultation papers on the Web opens up new channels for citizens to find out about and access consultation arrangements at low cost: the National Audit Office (NAO) study 'Government on the Web' showed in 1999 that Web provision has produced dramatic increases in the numbers of people accessing consultation documents and responding to agencies' invitations to comment. We consider more innovative uses of the Web and e-government methods in Part 2c below.

16. Responses to consultation must allow sufficient time for reply if the process is to be effective. In their evidence the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) pointed out that 'in practice the time allowed for consultation is often shorter than one would wish. For example the Ministry has allowed four months for the industry to comment in relation to the review of the Agricultural Wages Board but some views indicate that this period is not enough. The period allowed should not be an arbitrary one but should wherever possible reflect the level and range of consultation necessary to involve all interested parties' [17] Mr McCartney also said that 'urgent action is sometimes genuinely necessary. But, more often than has been done in the past, we ought to take time to listen'. However, the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) commented ruefully that not only will some groups complain they were not consulted however wide the net is cast, but that the period is always too short for some.[18]

More extensive forms of public participation

17. More extensive forms of public participation have existed for many years in local authorities, the NHS and in some parts of central government. Witnesses agreed that interest in encouraging public involvement in decision-taking was already growing under the previous administration, in particular as part of the 'Charter Movement'.[19] Professor Stewart suggested that the innovative methods of participation in which we are particularly interested had been developing over the last seven or eight years.[20] And Sue Goss suggested that since it is probably the case that it takes several years to begin to develop effective consultation it is likely that 'many of the successful initiatives pre-date 1997'.[21] The traditional way of analysing issues stressed a 'ladder of participation' in which traditional forms of consultation formed the lowest rungs, with more innovative and involving approaches forming the higher rungs. These stages are marked out principally either by the extensive and deliberative character of public involvement, with citizens able to develop extensive arguments or being asked to consider their own priorities and alternative strategies in more depth; or by policy-makers undertaking much more extensive efforts to find out what people want before embarking on particular courses of action.

18. Accurately understanding citizens' priorities when undertaking planning for the future can be important for avoiding mistakes in the public services. The NAO study of the UK Passport Agency's difficulties in the summer of 1999 provides an apt illustration. The Agency embarked on a programme to automate passport-issuing with a private sector partner, with the aim of reducing the average costs of passports to citizens by a small fraction. When this process began to go wrong, the Agency began to accumulate backlogs of mail; citizens reacted adversely, deluging its phone lines with enquiries and responding to perceived delays by submitting passport applications early, which made the Agency's problems much worse. A crisis of confidence ensued in the spring and summer of 1999 with people fearful that they would miss holiday or overseas trip arrangements which resulted in long queues at English offices and the Agency's mail and phone communications being for a time almost out of action. It became apparent that citizens' major priority in respect of the passport service was not the cost per passport as Agency policy had assumed, but instead the maintenance of a highly reliable service without uncertainties or delays. Proper consultation and user participation could have established this. Once Ministers intervened to relax passport renewal procedures for a time, the Agency was able to restore its services to normality at the cost of an increased passport issuing fee. It has now established a new integrated call centre for advising the public and a useful new Web site which is kept up to date with current information on processing times.

19. The current government has enthusiastically adopted the idea of providing extended opportunities for citizens to participate and has in particular extended it from service provision to a broader range of situations. The Cabinet Office has taken the lead, recruiting a 'People's Panel' (see below), issuing and evaluating guidance to Departments and stressing the importance of consultation in a number of its publications including Wiring it Up[22] and The Modernising Government White Paper.[23] In 1998 the Cabinet Office issued a guide How to carry out Written Consultation Exercises and has recently evaluated both the guide and the extent to which Departments comply with it. Several of the departmental responses to us made reference to this. The Cabinet Office has as a result now issued in draft a revised Code of Practice on Written Consultation and invited comments on it. We are glad to note that the new Code takes account of the comments made to us by individual departments.

20. The evaluation of the earlier document showed that in the past the Cabinet Office advice has not always been complied with, some Departments preferring to use their own internal guidance. In future, the Cabinet Office minister Mr McCartney explained

    'It is the first time the government has decided to grapple internally and externally with poor practice. On the one hand you have a variance in the 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 put in place standards which will require government departments, ministers and other public bodies to follow through'.[24]

This is a clear recognition of some of the long-standing problems which together have given consultation a bad name. However, in the view of the time-scale for several recent consultations, we remain to be convinced that the Cabinet Office has the authority to ensure compliance with a new approach.

21. The draft Code of Practice is centred on seven criteria, each of which we endorse. Particularly welcome, in our view, is the intention to set up a web-based central register of public consultations on the Downing Street web-site which

    '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 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...We propose that each department should maintain a list of live consultations (as some already do) and those pages should be linked from the No 10 site'.[25]

There are also proposals to relieve people of the burden of finding out what consultations are afoot by asking them to register interest in particular topics so that they may be alerted. Such a move reflects the move to 'one-stop shops' in local government.

The Consultation Criteria

1. Timing of consultation should be built into the planning process for a policy (including   legislation) or service from the start, so that it has the best prospect of improving the proposals concerned, and so that sufficient time is left for it at each stage

2. It should be clear who is being consulted, about what questions, in what timescale and   for what purpose

3. A consultation document should be as simple and concise as possible. It should include   a summary, in two pages at most, of the main questions it seeks views on. It should make it easy as possible for readers to respond, make contact or complain

4. Documents should be made widely available, with the fullest use of electronic means   (though not to the exclusion of others), and effectively drawn to the attention of all interested groups and individuals.

5. Sufficient time should be allowed for considered responses from all groups with an   interest. Twelve weeks should be standard minimum period for a consultation

6. Responses should be carefully and open-mindedly analysed, and the results made widely   available, with an account of the views expressed, and reasons for decisions finally taken

7. Departments should monitor and evaluate consultations, designating a consultation co-  ordinator who will ensure the lessons are disseminated

22. While we welcome the draft Code we should like to see evidence as to how it is intended to ensure compliance. This is a key issue if it is to be effective. We expect that all Departments and NDPBs will comply with the code as a minimum requirement when conducting future consultations. We recommend that all departments, agencies and public bodies should formally record in their consultation exercises that they have adhered to the Code. We note that the draft code applies only to written consultation and hope that in future the Cabinet Office will give attention also to other forms of public participation such as roadshows and e-consultations.

23. The DETR is also heavily involved: the Local Government Act, 2000 is intended to fulfil the promise of the 1998 White Paper Modernising Local Government: In touch with the People to create local government which 'will be characterised by councils which are in touch with local people and get the best for them' and which will actively promote public participation, including the use of referendums where appropriate.[26] Consultation is one of the criteria whereby 'Best Value' in local government is judged. There has recently been a consultation, in the form of a questionnaire intended to be widely available to the general public, on appropriate priorities for the NHS.

24. We asked a series of Parliamentary Questions (the best response came from DfEE[27]) and the Chairman wrote to Ministers seeking evidence of newer or more extensive participation procedures being used by central government departments. Of course, departments do not all have the same degree of interface with the public, and this affects the extent of the consultations they carry out. Many have their own, specialist client groups. The Department for International Development, (DfID), for instance, circulate each of their country strategy papers to a different target group for comment; the recipients include 'civil society, academia, developing countries, multilateral institutions, the private sector, international development banks etc'. Other departments like the Departments of Social Security (DSS) and the Department of Health (DoH), have a closer day-to-day relationship with the public and this is reflected in their consultations. The NIO made the point that special circumstances have made it particularly important ('a real necessity') for them to consult widely.[28]

25. Even some Departments which relate mainly to specialist groups still make an effort to involve the wider community. DfID hold forums with invited participants which combine working groups with panel discussions led by a Minister, while the Ministry of Defence (MOD) invited responses from both inside and outside the defence community on the Strategic Defence Review. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) hold open days and have an award-winning web-site with a feedback form enabling on-line comment on any subject to be sent back and on which customers can also register their areas of interest and be sent automatic updates on relevant subjects'.[29]

26. A number of departments like DETR and MAFF referred to web-sites, 'putting material on the Internet' and to receiving responses by e-mail, (especially useful when there were unavoidable time-pressures). The Oil and Gas Directorate of the DTI has used its web-site as a substitute for paper-based consultations. DfID solicits responses to its country papers via its web-site. In addition: MAFF 'use specific fora. For example the Ministry has set up a TB Forum comprising representatives from the main farming, veterinary and conservation organisations. It has been established to consider new measures which might be taken to control TB in cattle'.[30] The Committee notes the extensive use of the MAFF web-site during the current foot-and-mouth crisis. The DSS instituted a 'Listening to Older People' Events Programme, which included one event especially for ethnic minority elders and included a virtual conference on the internet and open meetings involving Ministers in which all present had to opportunity to speak; they also told us that their web-site has a feed-back section. The British Library held 'its first-ever online meeting to allow users and non-users an opportunity to question the board and senior managers on the Library's operations and its...Annual Report....three hundred users logged on and 60 questions were answered in six hours, many more than could have been accommodated in a traditional style Annual General Meeting and at a fraction of the cost. The sponsoring department, Culture Media and Sport, also told us that the National Lottery Charities Board selects two committee members by lottery draw. [31] The Cabinet Office held a Listen-up exercise to find out the views of young people, which had involved rap and even puppetry.[32]

27. Replies to the question as to how responses were analysed were on the whole rather bland; for instance the DfEE said that in most cases that they were 'logged, recorded and analysed quantitively and qualitatively'.[33] The DETR commented in their 'lessons learned' section on the need to develop some way of giving weight to umbrella groups representing 'hundreds or thousands' of individuals.[34] The Cabinet Office guidance also refers to 'weighting' and we believe that they should make clear what this means in case it gives rise to a feeling that the results are being 'fixed' in some way.

28. We asked department and agency witnesses to explain what impact consultation and newer participation arrangements have had on policy-making or decisions. The most common response is usually some variant of 'the quality of policy-making is improved by accessing new ideas and a wider pool of expertise. It can also reduce conflict and give the final outcome a sense of common ownership and a greater degree of credibility', as the MOD told us. It was not easy to assess how far consultation actually changed outcomes. There were few examples of dramatic conversions on policy, though the Department of Culture, Media and Sport reported changing its mind on not keeping the national tourism board for England on a statutory footing. DfEE provided a useful table of outcomes which were mainly of the 'small changes made' variety.[35] Other 'lessons learned' responses included the practical 'avoid holiday periods during consultations' (NIO). A particularly lengthy and reflective list, specifying separately lessons for central government (the Department, Agencies and NPDBs) and local authorities was provided by the DETR.[36] Another not uncommon outcome was that 'leaflets were revised'. The absence of major changes of policy following consultation cannot be taken to mean that the results are not taken into account. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport commented that 'responses to the document A New Cultural Framework showed that much of our thinking on modernising the administrative structure of the DCMS is widely shared'.

29. Widening access arrangements was another common consequence of consultation and participation exercises at central government level. Both the NIO and the DfEE referred to making material available in non-standard formats. To assist the consultation process which followed the publication of the report of the group reviewing the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland the NIO produced a guide to the report which was also made available on tape, in large type and in braille. The DfEE said that its consultation provision for the disabled also produced the material in these formats and in Welsh.[37]

30. There was evidence that some departments and agencies saw some limits to the usefulness of developing further the 'best practice' guidance issued by central units. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department of Health wrote:

    'In terms of promulgating our patient and public involvement policy internally we have issued guidelines on good practice to staff and periodically conduct trawls to enable us to gauge, over a period of time, whether the level of involvement is increasing. So far we have not attempted to advise on appropriate forms of consultation nor to undertake a comprehensive study of the various methods being used. The extent to which it is appropriate for individual business areas to involve the public and the ways of doing this will vary greatly depending on the nature of the work. In some areas it is virtually impossible to progress without obtaining the patient perspective, in others the benefit may be much less obvious'

Clearly the ways in which an extended system of administration such as the NHS operates will always need to be flexibly managed. But in general the Committee believe that achieving some greater standardisation of departments' and agencies' approach to citizen consultation and encouraging public participation has been helpful. We would expect to see the Cabinet Office's code being followed by all agencies at central government level, and in time being picked up in guidance to local authorities and health authorities as experience accumulates of what approaches work well in these contexts - see Part 2 below.

31. We also believe that it would be useful to find a means to recognise, and encourage, innovative and good participation initiatives across government. The existing Charter Mark Scheme offers a useful precedent and model. We therefore recommend that a scheme of 'Good Participation Awards' should be established, awarded annually to those organisations which have demonstrated innovative and successful practice in this area.

Civic voluntarism

32. 'Civic voluntarism', more broadly, construed, lies outside the scope of this report, but does have considerable implications for public participation. We note that the government has recently launched new efforts to encourage volunteering and charity work in the area of public services. Both the Cabinet Office and DETR have backed initiatives to encourage citizens to give their time and talents for advancing progress on community concerns or the public interest, especially in 2001, which is the Year of Volunteering. Much established academic work on participation in the United States has pointed up a contrast between declining levels of formal political participation (via elections or political parties) with stable or growing levels of people's involvement in civic-orientated groups. Thus 'civic voluntarism' is seen as healthier than people's formal political relations with government, partly reflecting the fact that resources for sustaining civic involvement (such as free time, experience in managing organisations, and tools like PCs and e-mail for communicating with members) have generally increased across the modern period. The picture in Britain has many similarities - in particular, there has been a considerable contrast between the flourishing membership of some interest groups in the 1990s (such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds with 750,000 members ) and the stable or declining numbers of party members. The availability of new resources - such as National Lottery money - has helped sustain community groups.

33. However, even this more encouraging perspective has been criticised by more recent work, which laments a tendency for Americans to become more family and individual-centred, 'bowling alone' instead of taking part in more group-based leisure activities. Changes of this kind will not have immediate impacts on the quality of civic life in a liberal democracy, but may have adverse long-term effects. The ways in which communities and cities are run, and the climate of social relations there (for instance between people from different ethnic backgrounds), can be powerfully affected by 'social capital' built up over very long periods. Social capital consists of networks of trust, and capabilities for taking collective civic action to manage social problems without being wholly reliant on government efforts. Maintaining these capabilities in communities suffering from problems such as economic decline or various forms of social malaise can be very important. The government's 'social exclusion' agenda has recognized that this aspect applies also in Britain, and has made a useful start in alerting public service agencies to its importance. The Committee visited the North East during its inquiry into 'Making Government Work' and saw some interesting examples of such work. But in the longer term it may not be feasible to keep civic voluntarism healthy if political participation declines, especially in Britain where the major parties have played a much more extensive role in structuring local political and community life than in the USA.

Part 2: Local Government and Local Level Arrangements for Promoting Public Participation

34. Most citizens deal most of the time with local government and with other local-level public services, such as NHS authorities and trusts. Apart from the Department of Social Security (DSS) there are few central agencies which have any kind of continuing relationship with citizens - most interactions between individual people and central government are fairly episodic or one-off. So the field of local level participation arrangements is in many respects the key one, and it is here that there has been most experimentation and accumulation of experience about what works and what does not work. We discuss: the existing guidance on how consultation and participation should be organised; recent innovations by local authorities and other bodies; and the general context of local-level participation.

Guidance on public participation

35. Guidance on public participation has been extensively provided to local councils and health bodies, even though one of our witnesses, Sue Goss, reflected a more general view that 'best practice always evolves locally and cannot be imposed centrally'.[38] There are established central guidance documents which aim to encourage public involvement. The Audit Commission Guide Listen Up is directed at all the bodies which it audits, including health authorities, police authorities and fire authorities as well as local government. We asked the Commission whether they felt that non-elected bodies tended to take the process of consultation more seriously because they knew they were not constituted by representative means, and therefore had to prove they were legitimate by consulting. Amanda Ariss said:

    'In the course of preparing the paper, we heard people sort of argue it in a number of different ways... We did not feel from the work we have done that there was a clear difference in the pattern between different types of bodies, so it was not that councils were well in advance or health bodies were in the vanguard. We found examples of really very good practice across the piece, but the picture overall is quite patchy and we think probably the most important thing is perhaps for those who are lagging behind a bit to learn from the front runners. But there is not a clear pattern of it being much better in one sector than another'.[39]

Marion Barnes, Director of Social Research, Birmingham University, thought that the 'same requirements, the same techniques should be equally applicable across the elected and non-elected sectors'.[40]

36. Increasingly, participation is a legal requirement. Best Value, for instance, insists on it while the Local Government Act, 2000 instructs authorities to consult on the economic and social wellbeing of their areas and, in some circumstances, to hold referendums on the future form of local government. As Sue Brownill and Neil McInroy reminded us, participation is now a prerequisite of funding under various regeneration budgets that there shall be partnerships between the public, private and voluntary sectors, and to be successful partnerships have to demonstrate that they have consulted local interests .[41] This insistence on consultation may prove to be a mixed blessing if it results in it being regarded as another hoop to jump through. The Audit Commission suggested that there is a possibility that consultation will be carried out in a perfunctory manner simply in order to comply with legal requirements.' [42] And Professor Stewart said 'when the involvement is forced involvement, statutory involvement, quite often it becomes artificial. The councillors are doing it as a form that has to be done rather than many of the innovations that have taken place where councillors are actually wanting involvement'.[43] Sue Goss argued that 'documents which outline good practice are not very effective. The reality is that there are many, many such documents and they do not seem to be very effective way that good practice is spread is experientially by people seeing it, feeling it, tasting it, being there physically and trying it out'.[44] The worst reason for consulting would be just because it is required or has become routine.

37. The White Paper Modernising Local Government asks whether the multiplicity of individual statutory obligations to consult should be replaced by one overarching framework. We see merit in this approach and recommend that the Government consider introducing legislation to this effect. The proliferation of compulsory consultations led us to inquire informally of the Cabinet Office and the Local Government Association (LGA) whether there was anywhere a 'map' setting out obligations to consult. Neither was aware of any. We think that such a map would be useful to authorities and citizens alike and recommend that the Cabinet Office produce a list of cases where there is a statutory obligation to consult.

Developments in local participation

38. Developments in local participation need to be assessed in terms of a realistic view of how much citizens currently participate in influencing local agencies and councils, and how much they might be willing or able to participate more. The most systematic recent study of citizen perspectives on local government participation by De Montfort University suggests that the main factors which discourage people from becoming involved are: a negative view of the local authority; a lack of awareness about opportunities to participate; a lack of council response to participation exercises; and a perception (even if unjustified) that 'it's not for the likes of me'.[45] On a small scale the educative experience of taking part in consultation exercises may help to counter is the negative perception of councils. There is evidence that after serving on citizens' juries, for instance, people have a greater appreciation of the difficulty of the council's task.[46] (The disadvantage of this process is that such panels may become 'institutionalised' and too willing to accept council views).

39. In evidence to us members and officials of local authorities frequently referred to public apathy in the face of public participation exercises. Evidence from Birmingham City Council suggested that while some 47% of residents tell pollsters that they want to know more about what the council is doing only 27% were interested in taking more decisions themselves.[47] A wry comment from the London Borough of Barnet about their citizens' panel was that 'panel members ...share one characteristic that makes them atypical -- they are sufficiently interested in local affairs to make a commitment to being surveyed on a regular basis. This puts them in a minority of between 10 per cent and 20 per cent of the population'.[48] The evidence from Broxtowe Borough Council suggested that 'consultation on local government services is not "sexy" enough to attract major interest. There has to be a controversial or NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) element to achieve big attendances' .[49] Sometimes, also, people are not concerned with being consulted about provision of a service but just to know that it will indeed be available when needed-the fire services were cited. Also, in the case of difficult decisions, such as for instance medical choices, there may be a preference for leaving it to 'the experts'. Another witness warned that while some people can be encouraged to graduate from consultation to participation, for most government remains a part-time interest.[50] It is also possible that in some cases what appears to be apathy may in fact indicate contentment. As one of the witnesses for the LGA said: 'Who is mad - the person that wants to talk about the level of dog mess in parks? Or the person who sits at home with his beer watching footie with his family?'[51] These problems increase when citizens are unsure that participation will have any effect. A study carried out for the DETR by Professor Lowndes and Dr Pratchett of De Montfort University[52] found that two-thirds of all authorities did not report clear links between participation and decision-taking. The Audit Commission paper Listen Up suggested that 'nearly three-quarters of authorities surveyed....thought that a failure to link the results of consultation with decision-making processes prevented the results from being used effectively'.

40. A number of witnesses stressed that certain groups were reluctant to take part in participation exercises. The Lowndes/Pratchett survey confirmed that there is a view that the same people are always involved and suggested that the groups most likely to be disaffected were young people, single parents, (particularly women), and ethnic minorities; unless efforts are targeted to reach these groups, not only will more participation not lead to more democracy but participation initiatives may actually reinforce exclusion by providing a wider range of forums from which people can feel themselves shut out. Direct invitations, innovative approaches (house meetings for some groups of ethnic minority women, for instance) and perhaps even incentives for the citizen may be appropriate, and long-term, community-building and capacity-building initiatives improving people's ability to participate will be necessary.[53]

41. Organising more effective processes of participation often entails more thorough-going re-thinking of how decisions and local management are undertaken. In their Local Initiative Local Action ( LILA) process Birmingham City Council explained that they put in place a comprehensive officer support structure, providing each ward with two lead officers and a Ward Support Officer (full time or part time), a Chief Officer at constituency level to have oversight of three or four wards, and a Corporate Support Group comprising officers from departments to deal with service-related issues arising from the ward committee. This arrangement had a number of advantages - exposing senior managers to community aspirations and needs; ensuring support for LILA at the highest organisational level; and fostering 'one organisation' working by building LILA into the responsibilities of senior management, thus avoiding the creation of an 'us and them' mentality. The witnesses said that it also meant that 'pressure points have been felt in various places throughout the organisation from the very fact that senior managers are undertaking the LILA ward leader officer role in addition to their normal duties'.[54] Sophia Christie commented that work on community development suggests that 'it requires a parallel track of organisational development if it is to bear fruit. If organisations are not able to flexibly respond to findings then consultation will not make a difference. Organisations need to have a value-base which means they are motivated towards making change happen in response to consultation - even if that means a fight internally with certain professional power bases or externally with funders/performance managers'.[55]

42. Good participation procedures also require local councils to evaluate how their processes operate in practice. York told us:

    'The Council has developed a Consultation strategy that incorporates a range of 21 techniques. The guidance given on the appropriateness of individual techniques to particular issues, circumstances or stakeholders is extensive. Before consultation is embarked upon, safeguards are in place to ensure that it is the pertinent form for the project and that a series of questions about its usage have been answered. This ensures that consultation is carried out with a clear remit, understanding of what will be done with its results, defined consultees, and a programme for informing people of the results and outcomes. This is reinforced by a Consultation Evaluation Procedure that assesses any consultation exercise against a range of parameters. In this way, not only can consultations be checked for robust methodologies but also as to their impact upon the policies and services of the council and how, consequently, they have empowered stakeholders'.[56]

However difficult the task may be, it is important if consultation is to retain credibility that proper methods of evaluating it are devised. We believe that whatever methods are devised should concentrate on outcomes rather than process.

43. It is relatively rare to be able to show monetary savings as a result of consultation, though it is to be hoped it leads to better spending of available funds, and some local authorities may feel it hard to justify financially. Burnley Council told us that 'it is difficult for a small authority such as Burnley to meet the cost of citizen participation, including staff time. The Authority now has a specified budget for corporate community involvement (including the Citizen's Panel) but does not yet have a corporate communications budget, which is a major inhibitor of our citizen participation work. Effective public involvement has to be underpinned by high quality and properly resourced public communications'.[57] Nor is the problem of resources confined to small authorities. Birmingham City Council pointed out to us that councils, increasingly encouraged to concentrate resources on service delivery, may no longer have the facilities to carry out and analyse participation exercises. They suggested that there should be a competitive fund for sponsoring innovations at both the national and local level and we support this idea.

The general context of local-level participation

44. The general context of local-level participation has to take account of low and declining levels of voting in local elections, and of some problems with how local elections work. The ward system in local government, combined with first-past-the-post voting, means that parties which win a majority of votes (or even a large minority of votes) can gain very large numbers of seats. In some cases a single party gains all or virtually all the seats, so that it becomes difficult for any effective opposition to exist within the council. A study by de Montfort University in 1998 found that one in five councils in England had a leading party holding more than 80 per cent of the seats. Professor Dunleavy pointed to the example of:

    'a one- party council or a council where 92 per cent of the seats are held by one party. It is in London, it has citizens' juries, it has a leadership which is actually very embarrassed to have got 56 per cent of the votes and 92 per cent of the seats and really is doing everything it can to live with the illegitimacy which is thrust on it by the electoral system, and trying to get round that in a very creative and pioneering way. They would not be doing all those things if they were not worried that the electoral process was misrepresenting them to the public.[58]

Problems with low levels of electoral legitimacy, even when they in fact reflect solid majority support as in this case, tend to erode people's interest in standing for election as councillors, and to be inimical to public participation. Citizens may feel that councils without effective competition between political parties are less likely to listen to their views than those councils where two or more parties are in closer contention. We believe that any strategy for increasing electoral participation at local level will have to include consideration of the local electoral system.

45. Local referendums have been suggested as one potentially useful way of increasing citizens' involvement, but the experience so far has not been extensive. In 1999 Milton Keynes council consulted its citizens on budget options, and won a 41 per cent response (compared with a local election turnout that year of only 26 per cent), with citizens voting for a 10 per cent increase in local council tax. However, the city is in the unusual position of being rapidly growing, with around 8,000 people a year moving in, so that its voters' views on services may not be typical. In early 2001 similar budget referendums held in Bristol and in Croydon produced lower response rates and different decisions, with voters rejecting options for raising council taxes, and in the Bristol case going for a standstill budget which the council explained would entail sacking some teachers. Using local referendums in these ways to help fix budgets is controversial, with critics arguing that councillors have a duty as representatives to face up to hard choices or dilemmas, which they should not shuffle off onto voters, who may be less well-informed of the consequences of different choices than their elected representatives.

46. In its evidence the LGA explained that:

    'There is of course a host of difficult and complex issues to be addressed in the conduct of local referenda, for example: Is the subject-matter one which is suitable for the referenda process? Is the issue capable of being posed in such away as to require a yes/no answer? Who decides the question to be put? How can even-handed information about the pros/cons of the proposition be provided? Is campaigning allowed? Should there be a threshold for turn-out at local referenda? etc... One of the key issues will be to ensure that referenda, where they are used, are conducted in a fair and effective way with consensus on the proposition'.[59]

47. The Green Paper Modernising Local Government: Local Democracy ad Community Leadership states that the government 'would welcome views on whether it ought to legislate to create a specific power to hold local referendums and how they should be conducted, the issues on which referendums should be permitted, how they might be triggered and whether on particular issues the results of referendums should be mandatory'.[60] The LGA suggested that the Government should take two actions in respect of referendums: they should amend legislation so as to put beyond doubt local authorities' power to carry out local referendums and to allow local authorities to pilot citizen's ballots at the request of a certain proportion of electors.[61] They also suggest that the Electoral Commission should be given power to oversee the conduct of referendums. Both suggestions seem sensible and we recommend that the remit of the Electoral Commission should be extended to allow it to issue a code governing the conduct of local referendums, and their validation. Government should also clarify the powers of local authorities to hold referendums.

48. The government's main prescription for reviving democracy at local level involves the re-casting of local government from the traditional committee structure to a system where there is separation of powers with scrutiny committees and a 'community' role for back-bench councillors.[62] The leadership of the council will be undertaken either by a directly elected Mayor, or by a 'cabinet' of councillors focusing on executive decisions. The idea here is that the current typical 'submerged executive' in local government is hard for citizens to understand, and that clarifying responsibility for decisions will make local government more accessible for citizens. A drive to achieve greater consultation is part of this plan. For instance, one of the options for reform is a referendum on adopting a mayoral system. (We noted, though, evidence from Barnet which suggests that 'response rates to consultation exercises on new council structures can be as low as one per cent').[63] The ending of the committee system of local government, and its replacement by an executive/scrutiny split, may also give non-executive councillors or 'community' councillors greater scope for brokering participation exercises and for just getting 'out and about' among their electorates looking at their problems on the ground. The Lowndes/Pratchett perspectives study comments 'Prospects for enhancing public participation are likely to be linked to the success (or failure) of new political management arrangements designed to increase the accessibility and responsiveness of local councillors'.

Part 3: Innovations in Promoting Public Participation

49. Although there are many different kinds of innovation being undertaken across the country at local level, and some of this diversity has been referred to already, we concentrate attention here on three topics: deliberative forms of participation; the advent of e-governance and e-participation; and the central government's People's Panel.

Deliberative forms of participation

50. 'Deliberative' forms of participation differ from normal public consultation or public participation because they do not seek 'snapshot' answers on pre-defined questions framed by policy-makers. Instead the emphasis is upon getting relatively small numbers of citizens to think about their experiences and priorities, to look at the problems of providing public services, and to frame their own suggestions and recommendations for policy-makers to consider. In short, people are asked to deliberate, listen to evidence, and get involved in a far more extended way with the issues under consideration. The motivation here arises from several sources. As members of the Lewisham People's Panel told the Joint Committee on the draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill in the summer of 1999, the intelligence of the electorate should not be underestimated. It is difficult and perhaps impossible for public officials to have as much information about citizens' situations as they do themselves. And the inter-connections between problems from the citizens' point of view are often subtle and yet very important for the way that policy decisions work or do not work.

51. Deliberative approaches include using citizens panels or citizens' juries to examine policy choices, and or calling special conferences to allow actual or prospective users to discuss options in detail. Islington Council, for instance, recently convened a day-long conference meeting with around 60 people to discuss adult education provision in the borough. Participants were paid £50 to spend a day on the issue, and were chosen to include both people who had made no use of adult education opportunities since school and others who had overcome difficulties to improve their qualifications and job prospects. In Sandwell, in 1999, there was a conference day that 200 old people were involved in. They

    'identified 13 challenges to the chief executives of the health authority and the council which were then fulfilled over the year, and they ranged from very practical issues like a better response to repairs for older people in housing through to some work that took longer, that was about how can we get an approved list of builders of people who are safe for older people to invite into their own homes. I do not think the chief executive of the health authority left to his own devices would have thought that was a hugely important issue for older people, but older people were able to tell us that yes, actually that was one of the things that made them feel confident about staying in their own homes and continuing to live full lives'.[64]

52. Birmingham City Council told us that:

    'Some of the most innovative work that we have done has been with local authority tenants. We have a system of tenant liaison boards in which tenants have been engaged not only as consumers but also as decision-makers about the budget which they become responsible for. We can demonstrate quite clearly changes, very important changes, not only in the way that we do business but in the pressures that are placed upon us by tenants. For instance, investment has been made in helping tenants to become effective members of the board and on the basis of that, much more information has been shared about the shape of the housing budget. That in turn revealed a very high proportion of maintenance expenditure going on a series of items of landlord responsibility, which in other settings would have been tenant responsibilities. The interesting thing is that the tenants, collectively, acknowledged that was not a very sensible way of doing business and actually agreed with the authority that we should revise the tenancy rules to reduce the responsibilities of the landlord so that those monies could be more effectively concentrated on proper landlord responsibilities. That has demonstrated to us that some of the conflicts that we face in terms of how money is spent can actually be negotiated through with tenants and customers.'[65]

This is a particularly interesting example in that it shows that effective participation can lead to the more effective allocation of resources.

53. Even issues quite remote from citizens' experience can be usefully addressed in this broad way. John Durant, Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Imperial College, told us of his experience of organising a consensus conference in 1984. He had 'found it possible to recruit 16 citizens into a fairly intensive deliberative process in which they got to grips with a complex area of modern technology and came up with thoughtful and sensible views about it over a six-month period. The Green Alliance told us that 'post-BSE the public has a sophisticated understanding of issues involving scientific uncertainty and wants to be more involved in the decision-making processes concerning these issues.[66] As these kinds of issues become more significant, we believe that deliberative techniques should be routinely employed to explore the views of citizens on them. A recent example— the parliamentary vote on stem cell research which would have been usefully informed by a citizen's panel or jury exercise.

54. The government is trying to break down departmental and other barriers between service deliverers and create 'joined up government'. Joined up government suggests the need for joined up consultation. The LGA told us that a notable feature of citizens' panels was that many 'have been established as joint ventures with other local public agencies. This not only has the benefit of reducing costs but also helps develop the concept of a co-ordinated approach to consultation and avoid "consultation overload" .[67] The Bristol Citizens' Panel has been developed jointly between Bristol City Council and Avon Health Authority, Lincolnshire County Council's panel is in conjunction with the district councils and the police. Consultation on single issues may suggest that there are significant factors which are outside the scope of the consulting authority. There is evidence that some authorities are addressing this problem. Sophia Christie explained that consultation on health issues had sometimes drawn attention to wider issues such as housing, which the health authority has not been in a position to take forward, thus leading to disgruntlement and frustration among participants. She told us that Sandwell was looking at 'bringing together those key organisations, so it is the West Midlands Police with the local authority, the health authority, the TEC, the voluntary sector, umbrella organisations and a local ethnic minority forum as a civic partnership that also includes the Chamber of Commerce and within that umbrella framework we have been looking at how we can adopt more consistent approaches to participation and we have just accepted a common framework for community involvement...We are in the process of working through the development of the idea of a kind of consultation clearing-house where we could have a central point with people checking out who is doing what on what kinds of issues and whether we can do that consistently. We have also got a common residents' panel where we are collaborating across the partnership to look at the sorts of questions that are being asked so that it has a single identity and people are not being bombarded with similar questions from different organisations'.[68]

e-government and the Internet

55. The advent of e-government and the Internet represent important opportunities for extending public participation. Some wholly new forms of participation could open up by offering the possibility of responding to questions at the click of a mouse. MAFF told us that it was now possible to consult on EU legislative proposals on novel foods in a way which deadlines had previously made impossible.[69] A number of witnesses, in particular the Hansard Society for Parliamentary Government and the Newspaper Society, were particularly enthusiastic about the possibilities. Professor Dunleavy described the push by most government agencies and local authorities to put reams of information and new transactional facilities onto their web-sites as 'a rare instance of a tool where enhanced government efficiency and improved representativeness and ability to respond to public opinion go hand in hand'.[70]

56. The scale and speed of the development was described by Dr Helen Margetts, of University College London:

    'The rate of Internet penetration in rising dramatically. In mid-1998 around 7.3 million people had access to the Internet and the World Wide Web either at work or via home PCs. A year later the number had grown to over 10 million.[71] Other countries indicate the possibilities for future growth: in the US and Australia, where local telephone costs are low, rates of penetration are around 40 per cent and rising. As citizens increasingly use the Internet to shop, to bank and to communicate with enterprises and other citizens, they increasingly expect to interact electronically with government also.[72]

Professor Bellamy reinforced the point, suggesting that digital TV and digital telephony would also provide access to the Internet and that they may be significantly more inclusive than computer technology because they rely less on "computer-literacy"' .[73]

57. The present administration has made the use of these technological developments an integral part of the modernising government agenda, setting itself a target of making it possible for all the public's transactions with government (other than identified exceptions) to be conducted electronically by the year 2005 (a date initially put at 2008 but brought forward in a major policy change in 2000).[74] In its evidence the Government Information and Communication Service outlined a plan to give every citizen access to a 'portal' for reaching government services. An integrated plan for simplifying e-access to government services has already begun implementation under the label UK Online - which includes a central Web site, local centres teaching e-skills, and considerable press and TV advertising to popularise the service.[75] The new Freedom of Information Act also places considerable responsibilities on central departments, government agencies and other public bodies to make much greater volumes of documentation available to the public as it is phased into full operation. Many central departments' e-governance strategies (issued in late 2000) show that they plan to make documentation available in electronic form to citizens over the Web as the most efficient and low-cost mode of proceeding.

58. e-government developments may be relatively cheap compared with other IT investments, and the NAO Governing on the Web report showed that they can be highly cost effective if they allow savings on other methods of communicating with government. But public agencies may find it difficult to meet even fairly modest outlays of money in developing information facilities unless it is linked to their key objectives. Changing public service computer systems to allow the electronic processing of routine individual transactions may be more expensive, but should allow savings in staff costs and much cheaper transactions if there is a good level of take-up from the public. Estimates we received for the proportion of local authority web-sites which could be classed as being 'interactive'(both in 1998 and 1999 figures)[76] varied between 0% and 22%.[77] Research by the Society of IT Managers in Local Government in 1999-2000 showed that at that time very few facilities on local authority websites were very sophisticated or interactive. But service-oriented websites, e-mail systems and call centres may, however, provide an important electronic infrastructure for the future democratic developments.

59. This inquiry, however, concerns innovations in public participation rather than in public access to information or public services. 'E-governance' is not the same as 'e-democracy'.The great majority of electronic innovations are concerned with the provision of information and do not yet provide opportunities for the public to communicate with government, councillors or with fellow citizens on matters of common concern. One potential advantage of electronic methods of participation may be in affording access to some of the groups who are hard to reach by, or do not respond to, traditional approaches. Examples might include young people, or people who are housebound or simply busy, or widely scattered. The LGA[78] and the DETR [79] gave interesting examples of new technology being used to overcome the problems resulting from having a scattered rural population. But conversely areas with a high Internet penetration such as Cambridgeshire [80] and the City of London[81] also place a heavy emphasis on electronic communications.

60. On the other hand, several witnesses argued that IT is a useful tool for well-organised pressure groups, poised and eager to step into the vacuum left by the decline in traditional political activity. It could therefore actually intensify the exclusion of groups which do not have physical or psychological access to it.[82] Physical access may be provided for those groups who are prepared to use it, for instance through libraries and kiosks. In Gwynedd,[83] or in the government's recent initiative facilitating the buying of second-hand equipment by unemployed people, direct financial assistance is provided. But even this may not address the problem of psychological access.

61. Some authorities are already experimenting with electronic consultation. Barnet Borough Council told us they had used an electronic system, as well as a questionnaire to all households, the Council's website, roadshows and presentations, as part of their 1999 consultation on the budget; they suggested that they were the first council in England to use such a system otherwise than for elections. Machines had been placed in public venues such as supermarkets, shopping centres and libraries, and staffed by council officers. The Council's conclusion was that 'these machines have a great deal to offer for voting purposes, ie elections, referendums or some local consultation where there are simple choices to be made, but that they lend themselves less well to public consultations of a more complex nature'.[84]

62. Electronic consultation can, however, be much more than a replacement for paper questionnaires. It can be used for deliberative consultation. Professor Bellamy warned against thinking of democracy as 'simply a kind of giant market-research exercise'. She suggested that the real contribution the web could make is 'to stimulate the kind of lightly-mediated discussion that enables people to opt in if they choose to opt in, because they feel they have something useful to contribute'.[85] It seems clear that electronic discussions, virtual conferences, clearly offer savings in terms of participants' time and money and can help to overcome barriers of time and distance. There is, however, an important condition to be met if electronic participation is to be useful otherwise than in eliciting answers to simple 'yes' or 'no' questions. The Hansard Society evidence in particular showed[86] that the necessary facilities must be provided for analysing the information, usually copious and unstructured, which comes in.

63. Such exercises are not without their critics, however. Professor Durant said in his evidence:

    'I want to suggest that we do not go too far down the path of believing that a single technology, however extraordinary it is, is the solution to our ills here. The Internet is astonishing and is clearly strategically significant, particularly for the exchange of ideas and information in new and more flexible ways. I actually think from the limited research I know, and in one case have been involved in, that there are quite severe constraints to what you can do on the Internet, particularly in the area of multi-party deliberation. The kinds of exchange we are having in this room are quite difficult to simulate on the Internet. You can log opinions, you can just about have one question and answer, but interactive questioning in multi-groups, in more than twos, is actually quite hard'.[87]

The Hansard Society also felt that when people were unable to look in each others' eyes that sometimes made for 'intemperate comments'.[88] There have also been well-publicised incidents with hackers which underscore the need for good security on all public authority Web sites.

64. The introduction of new technology does not in itself necessarily empower people. Dr Helen Margetts warned that the development of Internet technology would not automatically lead to increased citizen participation. She set out two contrasting possibilities. In one of these there would be an 'open state' where government organisations would ' "become" their web-sites, forming an on-line state with new 24 hour citizen-government interactions characterised by new types of citizen participation, self-financing electronic service delivery, responsive policy-making, "holistic" government and a new kind of transparency'. Alternatively, she saw an "invisible" state with decreased citizen participation where government organisations fail to develop innovative ways of using the Internet' resulting in a confusing, fragmented view of government by citizens, government organisations losing control of their Internet presence through confusion of site ownership between internal and external providers; government having a lesser Internet presence than other organisations who will consequently attract the attentions of the citizen; and new forms of government impenetrability'.[89]

65. Problems may arise out of the commercial nature of the ownership and provision of the new technologies according to Professor Bellamy:

    'The drive to build markets for e-commerce will reinforce the growing synergy between computing, telecommunications and entertainment technologies. It is unlikely however that sufficient funding will ever be provided to develop a significant structure of civic nets on which public services can have a privileged domain, as is the case with the Dutch digital cities or the American Free-nets. This does not mean that governments could not invest heavily in the development of sites and services dedicated to public affairs but it does mean that they will be obliged to compete directly with a growing range of commercial and entertainment services. Experience consistently suggests that democratic applications can easily become trivialised or marginalised in such company'.[90]

There are other problems inherent in electronic consultations, including those of data protection, the authentication (where appropriate), of participants' identities, the protection (again where appropriate) of anonymity, [91] and the legal position of the moderator in the event of actionable material being posted.

66. Yet there are also very substantial dangers in simply using these or other problems to justify government agencies being very slow to adopt the new technologies into their fundamental methods of working. There are huge risks inherent in government being left behind in terms of the citizen's ability to communicate. Dr Margetts said:

    'If citizens and enterprises cannot communicate with [government agencies] electronically and they can communicate with other organisations electronically then I think inevitably government will lag behind. The DSS does not have much competition, but if citizens cannot communicate with some social security agency and they can communicate with a loan shark then that may be what they do. I think it will matter more and more'.

A similar point was made by Pam Dixon and Kate Oliver of Birmingham City Council: 'where information is not made easily available [by the civic authorities] people will be increasingly in a position to get it anyway and will use it outside the democratic process or despite it'.[92] Professor Bellamy was worried about the government's ability to communicate appropriately with citizens, saying:

    'There is going to be a major problem about public accountability because what is becoming very clear is that the information silos in government are not going to be broken down easily. And therefore what an organisational unit in the back office of government is increasingly going to be co­terminous with is a big mainframe processing system, because it is going to be years and years and years before those big mainframe processing systems are disposed of. 'You put a joined up front end to government so that it looks joined up and it behaves as if it is joined up, but the back offices are going to be very, very separate. From the point of view of public accountability that seems to be hugely problematic because it masks the underlying responsibility for delivering services'.[93]

Dr Margetts drew attention to 'the spiralling complexity of intranets inside government'[94] which may make it harder rather than easier, for citizens to communicate with government unless there is compensating action by government to keep public interfaces accessible.

67. We conclude that new technologies, carefully used, are tools which offer the possibility of greatly improving the accessibility and use made by citizens of public participation opportunities. People can access consultation Web sites when they wish to and respond easily, immediately and flexibly via e-mail. However, developing facilities exclusively for those with Internet access at home or work still carries an inherent risk of increasing social exclusion for those without access. So public agencies may need to try and use money saved via e-governance developments to make an even more systematic outreach effort to give information to and solicit the views of groups without ready e-access, and other groups least present in such participation exercises.

The People's Panel

68. The People's Panel has been one prominent instance of government agencies at the central level taking a more systematic approach to non-deliberative opinion polling and seeking the views of a large sample of the public (5,000 people) on policy choices and alternatives. The Panel is claimed to be a world first at national level. It was set up by MORI and the Cabinet Office in 1998 as part of the drive to make services more responsive (which places it firmly on the consumerist wing of consultations) 'because Ministers took the view that they needed a new mechanism to try to find out what people thought, particularly about public services and what needed to be done to improve them. It was hoped that it would

·  enable people's views to be tracked through time

·  provide a group of people who could be asked about their experience of public   services

·  enable the government to do cross-sectoral research, asking people about their experience of government as a whole

·  raise the profile of consultation.'

In January this [2000] the total cost of the Panel had been about £632,000'.[95] (By contrast, the one-off consultation on the NHS undertaken by the Department of Health in 2000 and pilloried in the press reputedly cost £500,000). To date, many of the questions put to panellists have been of quite a general nature, such as 'Do you agree that new technology will make it easier for you to deal with the government'.[96] It has not been used to help identify real policy changes (for example whether pensioners would prefer specific payments or additions to the basic pension). This is a missed opportunity. The results of the Panel are publicised on the Cabinet Office web site and in pamphlet form.

69. The Panel is available for use (at a charge) across the public sector and

    'to date [January 2000] eight other government departments have put questions in either one of our quantitative surveys or done qualitative work with us... We have done three fairly major quantitative surveys. The first wave was as a result of consulting all 5,000 people. Since then we have not needed to consult 5,000. The second and the third waves have both been around 1,000 people. The first wave asked generally about people's usage of services and was part of the recruitment exercise, but it also asked about things like attitudes to electronic government, one-stop shops and so on. The second wave included questions from DETR about local democracy, complaints handling and transport. The third wave, which we published in July, included some general questions about public service standards, how long you would expect to wait for a reply to letters and so on, as well as research which helped inform the DETR's Urban White Paper, Housing Green Paper. All of those three waves have tended to be an amalgam of a range of different questions, in part to keep people interested when they are being asked. We have also done a fair degree of qualitative work with focus groups, with smaller groups of people on issues like biosciences and Modernising Government. Before we produced the White Paper we asked a selected number of people about their experiences at certain life episodes such as bereavement or when they needed care, just to find out what the public perception was about how joined up government was, how responsive it was. We have used it for things like that. The Women's Unit have done a number of focus groups with it to try to define what women's real concerns are. We are also wanting to use the results to inform the policy-making process... it has helped prompt the setting up of some action teams which are looking at life episodes from the users' point of view. DSS used it and they used the results to help determine how they should take forward their own modernisation programme. MAFF, for instance, carried out some qualitative research into an information booklet on GM foods. They got a group together, showed them the booklet, asked them what they thought about it. As a result the booklet is to be rewritten.[97]

70. Critics argue that the Panel has experienced some problems. It has recently proved necessary to augment the ethnic minority component. The first assessment by the Cabinet Office in March 2000 revealed a high attrition rate: 9% of respondents have asked to leave, 21% have refused to take part in surveys, and 23% have been uncontactable (8% more than once). This leaves the panel more white, middle class, professional and activist. Panel members are also becoming more knowledgeable about, and interested in, public services and so less representative of the public at large. The panel had not been much used either to track opinion through time or for cross-cutting surveys and may not be suitable for such work. The density is too thin for recruitment of focus groups and some Departments need larger groups of people to work with than it can provide. Of eighteen users, only eight identified some contribution to decision-making . Additionally, Ben Page of MORI told us that the findings of the panel were in line with other opinion poll data, which raises the question whether it is necessary at all? Overall the Panel seems to us an interesting experiment (as are the panels established by local authorities and other bodies). But we would like the Cabinet Office to consider how it could be more innovative and distinctive, as well as to keep its usefulness under continuous review.

Part 4: Implications for Parliament

71. The evidence we received about public participation and Parliament centred mainly on the question of the difference that IT was likely to make. The Hansard Society thought that, by making Parliament more open and accountable, the use of new technology to consult might make it appear more legitimate.[98] On the other hand, difficulties as well as advantages are likely to arise. Whether or not e-mail is a qualitatively different form of communication from letter-writing, it certainly encourages voluminous correspondence. The point was made, by several witnesses, that UK Members of Parliament are not currently equipped to deal with the quantity of representations they may now expect. Dr Margetts argued that 'few institutions are systematically developing new kinds of political communication, such as facilities for on-line interaction with the public either as consumers or citizens....Where this is being done, there seems to be an irresistible temptation to control or restrict their use'. For example, both British MPs and American Congressmen are keen to distinguish between e-mails that do not come from their constituents and those that do. The same witness went on 'this practice [of distinguishing] may reinforce MPs' sense of themselves as constituency representatives but it may also filter out wider expressions of legitimate opinion on the issues of the day'.[99]

72. In terms of individual MPs, the discussion is currently somewhat academic, as at present only about 380 have e-mail addresses and not all these used e-mail. At some stage, however, as e-mail penetration of Members' offices increases, thought will need to be given to the staffing implications, both in terms of the skills needed to set up web-sites and those needed to monitor and mediate them.

73. Various suggestions were made about IT and Select Committees, some of which we are happy to endorse. It was proposed, for instance, that Select Committee's web-sites should be redesigned to make them easier for outsiders to understand. This could be done even without making them interactive. The Liaison Committee Report Shifting the Balance Select Committees and the Executive[100] has already made similar recommendations. This is a useful step but needs to be built on.

74. There are many ways in which the new technologies could be pressed into the service of parliamentary democracy, and there is already evidence of this happening. Professor Bellamy provided an ascending scale of possibilities, starting with 'supporting internal business associated with representation and participation' through 'the dissemination of information about Government and Parliament' and the support of communication between MP, Government and individual citizens on matters of individual or consumer concern to supporting the participation of citizens in deliberation/consultation about matters of public (collective) concern.'[101] In practice, elements of all her four stages are already in place: MPs do have online access to digests and analyses of public participation exercises; publication of parliamentary records already takes place by electronic means; some MPs do communicate electronically with their constituents on matters of individual concern; and submissions to public consultations on policy issues can often be made electronically. In future we look to see a more integrated system with greater facilities for making links between one element and another. The new technologies have major potential implications for Parliament. It is important that they are explored to the full. This requires a long-term strategy for e-access to Parliament to be as easy, attractive and well-used as possible.

Part 5: Conclusions and Recommendations

75. Our broadest conclusion from the very wide range of evidence sessions that we have held is that the period since the middle 1990s has seen an explosion of interest in involving the public more frequently, more extensively, and in much more diverse ways in the conduct of decision-making within the public services. In all the Committee's work we have been concerned to emphasise that the modernization of government must go hand in hand with the maintenance and development of channels of public accountability. Our witnesses and visits suggest that an increasing number of public servants and elected representatives accept the importance of securing greater public involvement, recognise that this goal cannot be easily or crudely achieved, and are prepared to commit the resources, time and ingenuity to overcome problems and make new advances. This is a commitment which we welcome and would like to see further extended and supported.

76. The current separation of functions between central government departments with responsibility for encouraging participation does not seem to us entirely helpful. We recognise the Cabinet Office's more recent role in promoting both open government and wider consultation. We believe that requirements on government departments, agencies, NDPBs, local authorities and NHS authorities and trusts need to be tackled in a much more integrated manner. We recommend that all public authorities should have access to a code of guidance which expresses the fundamental importance of involving the public in decision-making wherever and however it can be made feasible at reasonable cost and in a timely and responsible manner. The Cabinet Office should take on responsibility for compiling this simpler and more general set of obligations, ideally formulated around a number of basic principles, whose derived implications in particular contexts could be spelt out in more detail either by other central departments giving guidance to local councils or health bodies, or by local bodies themselves. This should be designed so as not to inhibit innovation by local authorities themselves. We believe that it would be helpful if a Public Participation Unit was established in the Cabinet Office as a single clear focus for public participation across government.

77. We believe that the issues of wider public participation and fostering democratic involvement by citizens need to be addressed in a more proactive and joined up way by the Government. The establishment of the new Electoral Commission provides an opportunity for this to be given a higher priority.

78. The advent of the Internet and the Web is certain to have a major impact on how government services are delivered over the next decade at least. The passage of the Freedom of Information Act, the development of government and local authority websites, and the increasing levels of Internet penetration in the UK all open up important opportunities to develop electronic forms of public participation. Again we recommend that a connected approach designed to acquaint people working at all levels of government with the best current practice can play a useful role. The Office of the e-Envoy within the Cabinet Office is best placed to take on this mission, working in close collaboration with Cabinet Office colleagues promoting public consultation and (if our recommendation above is accepted) the positive development of political participation.

79. Much of the progress in public participation methods has come and will continue to come at a local level. We especially believe that the development of more systematic methods for consulting local residents and the use of more 'deliberative democracy' procedures may offer local authorities, NHS organizations and other bodies great scope for developing fuller, more inclusive and more extended public involvement in the future. We recommend that central government work closely in partnership with other bodies (such as the Local Government Association, IDeA and so on) to disseminate information about good practice, to help authorities avoid 'reinventing the wheel', and to strengthen the training in participation models available for staff - especially knowledge of more deliberative methods. The DETR will also need to look especially hard at the general context of local government, to ensure that efforts at securing more public involvement are not set back by continuing low levels of legitimacy for local elections and the public forming off-putting views of how local politics operates. This may also require a new financial structure for local government to ensure transparency and accountability to local people in how money is raised and spent. Unless voting and participation matter, citizens are unlikely to engage in them. New forms of participation cannot substitute for the democratic legitimacy that comes from election; but they can complement the formal electoral process. As the new constitutional structures for local government, chosen by local residents, begin to come on-line in 2002, it will be important to ensure that localities continue to gain new freedoms to experiment with how they conduct elections and consult citizens - for instance, by regularising the situation on local referendums, permitting experiments with different systems of election, and so on. It is not enough to lament the decline in electoral participation; the challenge is to reverse it, and to enrich it with the new opportunities for public participation discussed here.

2  HC (1998-99) 201 and HC (2000-01) 61 Back

3  HC (1998-99) 209 Back

4  HC (2000-01) 367 Back

5  The results of the discussion are archived at and the written and oral evidence appears in HC (1999-2000) 79-iv. The cost was £2,000 Back

6  CM 4014 para 3.10 Back

7  Q 22 Back

8  Q 261 Back

9  eg Q 291 Back

10  Ev p 195 Back

11  Public Participation in Local Government: Citizens' Perspectives: Lowndes and Pratchett 1999 Back

12  Q 409 Back

13  Q 88 Back

14  Ev p 236 Back

15  Ev p 264 Back

16  Ev p 229 Back

17  Ev p 230 Back

18  Ev p 303 Back

19  Q 5 Back

20  Q 27 Back

21  Ev p 188 Back

22  Report from the Performance and Innovation Unit, January 2000 Back

23  CM 4310 Back

24  Q 475 Back

25  Ev p 226 Back

26  CM 4014 Back

27  HC Deb (1999-2000) 25 Jan col 1558W Back

28  Ev p 300 Back

29  Ev p 267 Back

30  Ev p 230 Back

31  Ev p 300 Back

32  Ev p 227 Back

33  HC Deb 25 Jan 2000 col 155W Back

34  Ev p 264 Back

35  HC Deb 25 January 2000 col 155W Back

36  Ev p 261 et seq Back

37  HC Deb 25 January 2000 col 155W Back

38  Q 467 Back

39  Q 344 Back

40  Q 391 Back

41  Ev p 147 Back

42  Q 345; see also Ev p 148 Back

43  Q 9 Back

44  Q 461 Back

45  Lowndes and Pratchett op cit Back

46  Q 24 Back

47  Ev p 201 Back

48  Ev p 233 Back

49  Ev p 244 Back

50  Ev p 236 Back

51  Q 319 Back

52  Lowndes and Pratchett op cit Back

53  Lowndes and Pratchett Op cit Back

54  Ev p 198 Back

55  Ev p 156 Back

56  Ev p 295 Back

57  Ev p 247 Back

58  Q 436 Back

59  Ev p 118 Back

60  Modernising Local Government: Local Democracy and Community leadership p 27 Back

61  Ev p 117 Back

62  Cm 4298 Back

63  Ev p 236 Back

64  Q 378 Back

65  Q 451 Back

66  Ev p 267 Back

67  Ev p 117 Back

68  Q 371 Back

69  Ev p 229 Back

70  Q 429 Back

71  According to the Office of National Statistics the figure by January was 32 per cent (HC (2000-01) Q 897 Back

72  Ev p 96 Back

73  Ev p 94 Back

74  Cm 4310 Back

75  HC 511 Q 58 Back

76  Well-connected? A snapshot of local authority web-sites, 1999 Back

77  Enhancing Public Participation: A research Report DETR, 1998 Lowndes Back

78  Ev p 120 Back

79  Ev p 261 Back

80  Ev p 252 Back

81  Ev p 254 Back

82  eg Ev p 160 Back

83  Ev p 120 Back

84  Ev p 234 Back

85  Ev p 255 Back

86  HC 79-iv Back

87  Q 432 Back

88  Q 249 Back

89  Ev p 97 Back

90  Ev p 94 Back

91  Ev p 109 Back

92  Ev p 258 Back

93  Q 286 Back

94  Q 253 Back

95  Q104. By early 2001 the total cost had been £1,112,735 (figure supplied by Cabinet Office) Back

96  Ev p 53 Back

97  Q 104 Back

98  Q 231 Back

99  Ev p 95 Back

100  HC (1999-2000) 300  Back

101  Ev p 96 Back

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