Select Committee on Public Administration Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

Thank you for your letter of 16 February about the Select Committee on Public Administration's inquiry into "Innovations in Public Participation".

  My officials have prepared the attached note responding to the questions raised by the Committee. From this you will see that my Department has a fairly good record in using innovative consultation methods, including routinely publishing documents on line and holding regional seminars to encourage discussion of issues and feedback. In taking forward the Modernising Government Agenda, we will be looking to continue to deliver and improve our approach to consultation. However, I also think it is important that innovative approaches run alongside more conventional methods and are not seen as a substitute. Indeed, experience shows that many respondents still prefer a more conventional approach.

  I am copying this letter to Sir Richard Wilson, Cabinet Office Colleagues and Nick Brown.

John Prescott



  DETR, as a matter of best practice, routinely places consultation documents on its website to allow concerned parties the choice of responding by electronic means. However, listed below are examples of more innovative methods of public participation.

1.1  Rural Policy

  When consultation took place for the Rural White Paper in 1999, Rural Policy ran regional seminars with an invited audience and commissioned (via the Rural Development Commission) an on-line discussion of the consultation document.

  Rural Policy also ran an online discussion, as part of three elements of consultation, on the discussion document "Rural England" to assist in the preparation of the Rural White Paper. The other elements of the consultation were a series of seminars and a written consultation exercise (approximately 800 responses were received).

  The online discussion forum on the internet was run by RuralNet at the National Rural Enterprise Centre (NREC), with the support of the Countryside Agency. RuralNet is a voluntary sector partnership that runs an online service for rural people combining e-mail, working groups, data libraries and online discussion conferences. 320 people subscribed to the on-line discussion of who most were passive observers. However, 80 subscribers actively contributed posting a total of 1,154 e-mailed contributions. A questionnaire was then sent to all 80 on-line contributors to find out more about their background.

  An NREC "moderator" attempted to steer subscribers towards the questions contained in the discussion document. Subject threads developed over time and some were more relevant than others. The electronic medium allowed contributors to raise issues of their choice and begin a dialogue with other subscribers. Its relative anonymity meant that subscriber's contributions were often less formal than the written responses received.

1.2  Housing

  Innovative approaches to public consultation were used in conjunction with the following documents: Leasehold Reform, Home Buying, Best Value in Housing, and Tenant Participation Compacts. For example, seven regional seminars were run for the Tenant Participation Compacts targeted at tenants who wanted to hear about the proposals and feed in their own views. A tenant sounding board under an umbrella organisation was also set up to help develop draft proposals and initiate feedback.

  A Research, Evaluation and Analysis team supporting Housing Policy have advised housing providers on effective methods of public consultation, for example user testing guidance on consultation for Large Scale Voluntary Transfers. This project was based on focus group work in a range of case study areas. Tenants discussed their views on the guidance that they had received in relation to the transfer. They highlighted what they perceived as good and bad practice and the type of information they needed. The results gained will be developed as guidance to Local Authorities, outlining what information they need to put across and the best ways of communicating this to tenants. Housing Policy have also sponsored and published "Developing Good Practice in Tenant Participation" which documents innovations in consultation by Local Housing Authorities.

  The same Research, Evaluation and Analysis team also advised Cabinet Office in 1998 on setting up the "People's Panel". This is a novel form of consultation and there are still some areas to be resolved eg, difficulties in retaining Panel members over time.

  The same team also used innovative consultation techniques to find out what the implications of the (then) rent restructuring proposals. A structured preference approach was employed that aimed to find out what people would really do if rents and benefits regimes change. Some very useful information was received from this exercise.

  Looking to the future, a new "Innovation into Action" programme has been launched to fund projects to develop new and radical ways of involving tenants in management. Nick Raynsford launched this new grant programme on 31 March.

1.3  Transport

  Innovative consultation on the Integrated Transport White Paper included regional seminars and national seminars based on Chatham House rules, the latter were largely aimed at professional interest groups.

  A new national bus passenger satisfaction survey is also planned to monitor the performance of the bus industry. This will complement an existing London survey and existing rail passenger satisfaction surveys.

1.4  Local Government

  The research paper Enhancing Public Participation in Local Government, commissioned by DETR in 1998, shows evidence of what is termed "on the surface ownership" of the public participation agenda right across Local Government. Local Authorities have taken up some of the more innovative proposals for stimulating public participation in the 1990s and have been relatively quick to take up opportunities afforded by new technologies.

1.5  Highways Agency

  The Highways Agency has long experience of public participation and has developed a range of research programmes and innovative approaches:

Developing guidance in public involvement techniques for Highways Agency managers

  Public consultation is being researched as one component of the Highways Agency's "Managing Integration" outward facing research programme. The Highways Agency recognises that its managers need to develop strategic plans for public consultation that are tailored to the aim of the plan, as there is no single method that is suitable in all situations. A chart has been developed allowing the user to match different types of schemes with the most appropriate public consultation techniques. The suggested techniques range from travelling interactive exhibitions to citizens' juries or the use of community newsletters. To accompany the chart a series of worksheets have been written giving more detail on each technique. These worksheets give advice on using the technique and include real-life examples.

  Another area of research includes multi-modal environmental assessment. One element of this involves addressing public consultation issues in the development of strategic environmental assessment. The aim is to produce guidelines for stakeholder strategies. This is much needed research as there is currently no such guidance available. One example of a scheme where such guidance would be used is in the development of the stakeholder strategy for the proposed Stonehenge development on the A303.

Involving the public in identifying service targets

  The Highways Agency has just completed its fourth national Road User Satisfaction Survey, which included focus groups and interviews. The Agency is also conducting several surveys aimed at targeting service improvements. These focus on customer interaction with the Agency, eg at road works, correspondence and calling the Agency information line.

  The Agency have also carried out a series of focus groups across the country and held full discussions with the Road Users' Committee to review the service targets in the Road Users' Charter. The proposed revisions were then tested in the Road User Satisfaction Survey. The Agency will be publishing a revised Charter later this year including targets that have been identified in collaboration with their customers.

1.6  The Driver Vehicle Licensing Agency

  Within the Driver Vehicle Licensing Agency, the Graduated Vehicle Excise Duty project team has made considerable use of a series of focus groups. External consultants were commissioned to recruit and organise groups to establish their views on a variety of topics relating to graduated vehicle excise duty. These included policy lines, publicity material and influences on vehicle purchasing patterns.

  Information from the focus group proved valuable in pinpointing the types of questions customers were likely to ask about the graduated vehicle excise duty scheme. The information gained was used in drafting information leaflets, resulting in a reduction in queries to the Agency.

1.7  The Maritime and Coastguard Agency

  The Maritime and Coastguard Agency have used a variety of innovative methods when consulting with industry, the public and recreational users. These have included roadshows and seminars, for example "Search and Rescue" seminars with shipping representatives. The Agency has also participated in national and regional exhibitions such as the London and Southampton Boat Shows to demonstrate to fishermen what the effect of the "Global Maritime Distress and Safety System" would be.

1.8  The Rent Service

  The Rent Service is keen to involve external and internal customers in the work of the Agency. Customers are defined in the broadest sense and include DETR, DSS, landlords and tenants.

  During the life of their new Business Plan, the Agency intends to issue satisfaction cards to landlords and tenants at every inspection, set up a user panel of stakeholders to discuss key changes in service delivery and introduce a quarterly newsletter for customers. They also intend to hold a national conference to discuss their Business Plan for 2001-02 and Corporate Plan for 2001-05.

1.9  The Environment Agency

  The Agency is involved in consultation on a wide range of statutory and non-statutory activities. An internal "Best Practice" workshop was held in February 2000 to bring together staff carrying out public involvement activities. Fifty-six members of staff attended, representing all regions, head office and a wide range of functions. An article reporting on that workshop was submitted to the Agency's newsletter Focus and will appear in April's issue. It is attached in Annex 1 for information.[5] The Agency is reviewing approaches on an ongoing basis and this process is aided by research and development projects to ensure they achieve a balance between widening efforts and use of resources.

  The Agency consults on many issues at a number of levels that can be broadly listed as the following:

    —  project/local level eg flood defence projects, licence applications;

    —  river catchment/plan level eg Local Environment Agency Plans; and

    —  the strategic level eg Strategy for Water Resources, extended public consultation proposals.

  Flood Defence Schemes—the Agency carries out Environmental Impact Assessments, which involves an element of public consultation. Typically, a consultation plan is set up at the early stage of the process to formalise the ways communication will take place. It lists consultees and stakeholders and defines appropriate ways of communicating. The approach taken is that of mixed methods of consultation to reach different people in different ways eg post (letters, leaflets, mailshots), advertisements, visits, notices, bulletins, progress notes, press releases, radio and television.

  Collaborative projects with mutual objectives are also a way to encourage greater engagement. A case study from the Midlands Region is attached in Annex 2.

  Licence Applications—The Agency is currently involved with DETR in drawing up a policy on extended public consultation for selected licences. This will enable a three-stage consultation process to take place concerning licence applications that are of significant public concern eg waste disposal licences, industrial process licences and water abstraction licences. Innovative ways of approaching controversial licence applications have been carried out in a number of cases across the regions. An example from the South West Region is attached at Annex 3.

  Local Environment Agency Plans (LEAPS)—These plans aim to provide environmental information about the local area together with key issues and options for action. Over 150 of these plans have been produced by the Agency which aim to engage local stakeholders at the first stage and them communicate the issues to a wider public at the second stage. Innovative techniques used are aimed at engaging the key stakeholders, who are often the statutory consultees, plus other known local interest groups. An example of an approach taken to three LEAPs in the Thames region is attached in Appendix 4.[6]


  DETR's decision making processes have always taken account of public consultation in line with the inclusive policy making commitments in the Modernising Government White Paper. It is common to place all consultation documents on the DETR website ( which is the most visited in Whitehall. Access to material on the site has been improved by the introduction (in January 2000) of a new, more powerful search engine. We are also making the site more easy to use by providing a summary of DETR publications.

  DETR's Modernising Government Action Plan includes a commitment that existing guidance on consultation will be reviewed to see whether it can be improved and ensure that it is in line with best practice. This will be done in conjunction with Cabinet Office's proposed Code of Practice on Consultation.

  Where innovative consultation techniques have been used, structured and systematic ways of dealing with responses have been developed to ensure a fair reflection of the responses received and to limit the load on policy divisions. These new techniques involve applying qualitative and quantitative research methods to the responses received.


3.1  DETR (C), Agencies and NDPBs

  The key lessons learnt are:

    —  When initiating on-line discussions it is essential to plan the layout of the site at the outset. Links with the structure of the discussion document enhance the value of the feedback by allowing it to be easily linked and summarised with the written responses.

    —  The consultation must be tailored to the situation, just taking an "innovative" method off the shelf will not ensure that the process is successful. This refers to both the organisational situation—how the organisation will deal with the type of information that might come out of an "innovative" method, as well as the external, local, political situation.

    —  It is very helpful to pose very specific questions on which views are sought, otherwise responses are very hard to make sense of.

    —  There is a need to find a way of giving weight to responses from umbrella organisations that represent the views of perhaps hundreds or thousands of members.

    —  It is best to consider contracting out the analysis of the results if a large response is anticipated.

    —  If not there is a need to think carefully about the analysis techniques used in relation to the questions asked.

    —  It is essential to be responsive to the expressed opinions of consultees/participants. If consultation has taken place there must be a mechanism, and a transparent one that shows how respondents' comments are taken on board.

    —  Those who are participating in consultation must be told how much they can influence a decision.

    —  For increased engagement, public meetings can be considered. However, these need to be well managed and chaired to be effective. A public survey is also another option of consultation but also needs very careful management and design.

    —  In the rural context IT has a particular value in overcoming the problems of communication over distance and between dispersed small settlements; online discussions are a good example.

    —  Overall consultation must be genuine—more is lost by doing a bad piece of consultation than not doing one at all.

3.2  Local Government

  The key lessons learned by Local Government are:

    —  Best Value will enhance Local Authority awareness of how to use consultation effectively.

    —  Pilot experience shows that Best Value has increased contact with those that do not use Local Authority services and those that are typically hard-to-reach.

    —  Consultation is one of the "4Cs" mandatory in Best Value Reviews, but Guidance is not prescriptive on how authorities approach it.

    —  The adoption of new political management structures (Local Government Bill 1999) will enhance the community representation role of councillors.

    —  The Representation of the People Act will allow for piloting of new innovative initiatives to increase voter registration and turnout.

    —  The new power to achieve economic, social and environmental well-being will require authorities to consult the community on a community strategy.

    —  Research on the impact of innovative methods of public participation in Local Government is in its infancy.

    —  There is currently a lack of qualitative evaluation of the extent to which innovative techniques can help a Local Authority to achieve its objectives.

    —  Prescription of particular methods is undesirable—each has advantages and disadvantages—and appropriateness will depend on the overall objective.

    —  The publication of Best Value Performance Plans will initiate research and help evaluation of the impact of public participation on service delivery, and upon the wider corporate objectives and strategies of local authorities.

5   Not printed. Back

6   Not printed. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 30 April 2001