Select Committee on Public Administration First Report




  1. The Government warmly welcomes the Committee's report. It ties in closely with our programme. Improving public services, our key priority, means finding out what the citizens who use them want, and providing it. Effective participation in central and local government decision-making by the widest possible range of people and organisations is an important part of the Government's commitment to democratic renewal, with change coming from the bottom up as much as the top down.

  2. Much of what we have done in our first four years in government has been aimed at increasing participation in this way: for example our policies on more responsive public services,[4] on local government,[5] on better policy-making,[6] on freedom of information[7]—and especially on effective consultation,[8] where we have issued a new, binding code of practice on written consultation for central government. But effective participation from the bottom up also depends on a healthy civil society and the Government is doing a great deal in this area. For instance, citizenship teaching in schools will help improve political literacy and the social responsibility of the next generation. As a key part of the Government's commitment to improved services to children and young people we are also increasingly developing strategies and good practice to ensure that children and young people themselves are consulted and actively participate in the development of policies for public services which affect them.[9]

  3. A healthy civil society, needed to underpin effective public participation, also means a healthy and engaged voluntary and community sector. Voluntary and community organisations offer a unique opportunity for people to articulate and tackle common interests and needs, and so develop forums for debate and which give people the skills for negotiation, persuasions, open mindedness and self-organisation which are crucial to a healthy democratic culture. The Government is doing much to improve civic renewal. For instance, the Active Community Unit (ACU) in the Home Office provides on-going funding for organisations that increase the effectiveness of voluntary and community organisations, including the Home Office sponsored Community Development Foundation, as well as those that promote volunteering. The ACU is also supporting community activity, capacity building and community self-help and the effective engagement of communities, all of which contribute to civic renewal.

  4. There is more work still to do in the public participation field, and the Committee's report points the way to much of it. We thoroughly endorse the broad thrust of the report. The following are the Government's reactions to individual recommendations.

(a) We recommend that all departments, agencies and public bodies should formally record in their consultation exercises that they have adhered to the Cabinet Office Code of Conduct on written consultation (paragraph 22).

  5. The Committee's recommendation appears to relate to the draft of the Code of Practice on Written Consultation, which was itself, the subject of extensive consultation. The Committee let us have some early comments on the draft, which were taken into account in the final version, published in November 2000.[10] The initial General Principles section of the Code, meeting the Committee's point, now requires that the Code's seven criteria should be reproduced in consultation documents to which they apply, 'with an explanation of any departure, and confirmation that they have otherwise been followed'.

(b) We recommend that the Government consider introducing legislation to replace the multiplicity of statutory requirements to consult with an overarching framework (paragraph 37).

  6. The Government acknowledges the desirability of greater coherence in consultation standards. In respect of public national consultation documents, the Code of practice establishes a set of minimum standards for written consultation. Its effects go much wider, however: it also requires Departments to consider applying it to more limited consultations (General principles section, paragraph 9). And it calls on them to take opportunities to remove any statutory requirements that may be inconsistent with it—though the Government is not aware of a serious problem in this area. The Code should, therefore, bring more consistency to central government consultations.

  7. There are a number of different statutory consultation requirements on local government, and a strong case for rationalising them. The Government believes it would be sensible to consider consultation requirements along with the work already under way to rationalise plans and area-based initiatives. The Local Government Act 2000 provides powers to amend legislation that requires local authorities to produce plans; it could be used, following such work, to achieve some harmonisation in consultation requirements.

(c) We recommend that the Cabinet Office produce a list of cases where there is such an obligation to consult (paragraph 37).

  8. The Government does not see any sign of lack of awareness among local authorities of their obligations to consult, and doubts that an exhaustive 'map' of obligations to consult—of which there are many, often in fields of highly specialist interest—would be of much real value to private citizens either. But where it can be shown there is a need for more information, we are keen to ensure it is provided, and the Department of Transport, Local Government, and the Regions will in particular look at ways of helping local authorities best inform citizens of their principal rights.

(d) We support the idea of a competitive fund for sponsoring innovation in consultation at both national and local level (paragraph 43).

  9. The Government recognises the need to encourage innovation in consultation, which underlies this recommendation and the one in paragraph 31 for a scheme of Good Participation Awards. A number of existing schemes recognise effective consultation that translates into better results.

      (i)  The Beacon Council Scheme[11] councils' approach to consulting and involving local communities plays an important part in the decision to award beacon status.

      (ii)  The Central Government Beacon Scheme[12] promotes best practice across central government. Beacons must be able to demonstrate quality improvements and excellence in particular activities, which can include consultation with users.

      (iii)  The criteria for awards under the Charter Mark scheme[13] include consulting widely on what services people need and acting on their views.

      (iv)  The Invest to Save budget[14] can also be used to fund good consultation. ISB assessment procedures for bids encourage proposals that are based on consultation. ISB can be used to fund projects where improving consultation, with improved delivery in view, is a principal objective.

      (v)  The Government has also supported the Institute for Public Policy Research's award scheme for public involvement.[15] Dr Mo Mowlam, then Minister for the Cabinet Office, presented the awards last year.

(e) We believe that any strategy for increasing electoral participation at local level will have to include consideration of the local electoral system (paragraph 44).

  10. The Government does not propose to change the local government voting system other than by the introduction of the supplementary vote for the election of directly elected mayors. It does not see changes to the voting system as a panacea for the current weaknesses in local government, but favours wider and more radical reform, encompassing electoral arrangements, political management, finance, service provision and consultation, as set out in the 1998 White Paper Modern Local Government—In Touch with the People.[16]

  11. Local authorities now have power to experiment with different voting arrangements at local government elections. These can cover when, where and how voting can take place and how votes are counted, though not the system of voting itself. In May 2000, 32 councils carried out 38 pilot projects, including all-postal ballots, early and weekend voting, mobile ballot boxes, and electronic voting and counting. Many of these experiments were valued by voters for increased convenience. The only ones to have a significant effect on overall turnout, however, were all-postal ballots, and their cost was up to three times that of conventional ballots. There are expected to be further pilots in May 2002. The Electoral Commission[17] will have a role in evaluating the pilots when they have been completed. The Secretary of State can extend successful pilots to all local elections.

  12. The Commission also has a role in voter education. For the first time, a specific budget for voter education has been allocated to the Commission. It has yet to decide its priorities for this spending. In addition, the Government is particularly interested in understanding the reasons why there has been a marked decline in the numbers of young people voting in elections. The Minister for Young People, with the full involvement of the Electoral Commission, will be leading an initiative throughout the autumn to secure views and recommendations from young people themselves over what steps might be taken to reverse that trend.

(f) 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 (paragraph 47).

  13. The Local Government Act 2000 requires the Secretary of State to consult the Electoral Commission before making regulations on the conduct of referendums for directly elected mayors. The Government has also undertaken to consult the Commission about regulations and rules that had been made in this area prior to the Commission assuming its powers on 1 July 2001.

  14. The Commission is also under a duty to keep under review law and practice on referendums, including mayoral referendums under the Local Government Act 2000. It may also provide advice and assistance to local authorities as respects any matter in which it has "skill and experience".

  15. The Government is committed to legislating to confirm the powers of local authorities to hold advisory referendums as soon as legislative time permits. We expect that the Electoral Commission would have a role here broadly similar to that in respect of binding referendums for directly elected mayors.

(g) We believe that deliberative techniques should be routinely employed to explore the views of citizens on appropriate issues of scientific uncertainty (paragraph 53).

  16. The Government wishes to increase public confidence in science and in the scientific advisory system, and to encourage dialogue between scientists and the public. There must be sufficient opportunities for citizens to learn about scientific developments and debate their implications and value. The House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee's report Science and Society[18] usefully explored methods for encouraging such debate. The Government response[19] describes initiatives in this area, including the establishment of two new biotechnology commissions (the Human Genetics Commission and the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission) and the Food Standards Agency, with a remit to involve the public in debate and decision-making.

  17. Consultation, in whatever form, costs time and money. Expenditure should be proportionate to the issue concerned. Deliberative techniques are costly, and are not the right way to tackle all issues of scientific uncertainty. Public bodies need to draw on available research and decide what form of engagement meets their needs, and the public's. The Government commends the report of the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (number 153), Open channels: public dialogue in science and technology[20] for its consideration of these questions.

  18. Deliberative techniques are widely used elsewhere, including at times in local government;[21] some guidance is provided in the Cabinet Office's How to consult your users.[22] The Government believes that many deliberative techniques offer positive opportunities for local and neighbourhood deliberation. Neighbourhood meetings, resident consultations, citizen's juries and other forums offer such opportunities, as do innovative techniques such as Planning for Real and Listening Surveys, pioneered by organisations funded by the Government.

(h) We would like the Cabinet Office to consider how the People's Panel could be more innovative and distinctive, as well as to keep its usefulness under continuous review (paragraph 70).

  19. The Government has commissioned an independent evaluation of the People's Panel after its first three years' operation, by the Office for National Statistics, which is now being finalised. Whatever the outcome, we remain strongly committed to the principle that the views and experiences of consumers of public services should be consulted about how well those services are being delivered. The contract for running the Panel ends in January 2002, and by then we shall have made decisions on future arrangements. Innovation will be involved. The Panel is now under the aegis of the new Office for Public Services Reform within the Cabinet Office.

(i) 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 (paragraph 76).

  20. The Government has not set out a number of general principles relating to consultation in the final version of the Code of Practice on Written Consultation, especially the initial section. The Code itself requires that some of these principles should be applicable more widely than the sorts of documents with which the Code is directly concerned. There has also been guidance on enhancing public participation in local government. We will take every opportunity to articulate these general principles, and to apply them more effectively in respect of consultations across the board.

  21. The Compact on relations between the Government and the Voluntary Sector includes a Compact Code of Good Practice on Consultation and Policy Appraisal, published in May 2000. The Compact followed the recommendations of the Report of the Commission on the Future of the Voluntary Sector, published in 1996, which concluded that a Compact to develop the relationship between the Government and the Sector would be highly desirable. The aim of the Compact Code on Consultation and Policy Appraisal is to make a positive impact on the way in which government consults and appraises its policies in respect of the voluntary and community sector. The Government rests considerable importance on local and central government implementing the Compact.

  22. To underpin the Government's commitments over the participation of children and young people the Minister for Young People will shortly be publishing common core principles for participation of young people to be followed by Government departments and agencies when developing and delivering services which affect children. The Government's Children and Young People's Unit to support this work will publish guidance and it will be promoting best practice from public authorities and the voluntary sector.

(j) 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 (paragraph 76).

  23. The Cabinet Office has already developed such a focus, and is integrating this with its broader effort on best practice in policy-making and implementation. The team responsible for the Code of Practice on Written Consultation is now also responsible for developing the Best Practice website on consultation questions.[23] It has also embarked on a programme of activity to bring together the consultation coordinators required by the Code—a single individual within each department or agency that consults, responsible for ensuring the Code is complied with, that consultations are joined up where possible, and that good practice is applied to consultations, and lessons learned from them. The coordinators' network offers an opportunity to build expertise and raise consciousness within central government as a whole in effective participation. It will be important to ensure that work on electronic and non-electronic approaches to improving participation is kept closely in step.

(k) 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 the positive development of political participation (paragraph 78).

  24. The Office of the e-Envoy is currently developing proposals for enhancing opportunities for all forms of participation in the democratic process through the use of the Internet. The policy proposal is in the form of a draft consultation document on which we will seek views. The consultation will be wide ranging and will include not only all levels of government but also elected representatives, civil society, business and individuals, before a firm policy is brought forward next year.

  25. The driving forces for taking action on e-democracy are:

  • The decline in participation in traditional democratic channels

  • Higher expectations among citizens to be heard by policy and decision-makers on more occasions than just on polling day; and

  • The evolving digital society that is leading people to expect to be able to use the Internet to interact with all service providers including government, at all levels.

  26. The aim of the proposed policy will be to use the Internet to strengthen representative democracy by:

  • enhancing opportunities for every citizen to participate in the democratic process; and

  • enable government, parliament and other representative bodies to seek the views, knowledge and experiences of the people.

  27. The objectives of the policy will be to facilitate, broaden and deepen participation. The policy will involve action along two separate, but interdependent, tracks—Electronic Public Participation and Electronic Voting. For successful implementation, the policy must also embrace six key principles: Inclusion; Security; Responsiveness; Deliberation; Openness; and an e-democracy Charter providing clear statement of citizen rights and responsibilities. A number of government departments and other bodies have already contributed to the production of the document including the Electoral Commission and the Local Government Association. In developing the proposals into an agreed policy, OeE will continue to work in close co-operation and collaboration with a number of stakeholders within government, particularly DTLR in terms of electronic voting, as well as the devolved administrations and local government.

(l) 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 (paragraph 79).

  28. The Government agrees with the importance of identifying and disseminating good practice in consultation, and has in recent years issued or encouraged the production of a substantial amount of research and guidance on these issues. For example, the document Modern Local Government—Guidance on enhancing Public Participation, published in 1998, sets out a large number of principles and best practice examples, which remain valid.[24] In addition, a research report published in 2000 about turnout at local government elections included various best practice examples on improving voter participation.[25] Existing structures for learning by example in this way are now being greatly enhanced with the development of the IdeA Knowledge database.[26]

  29. Central departments and agencies could often learn, especially at early stages of consulting on a project, from the best of local government experience, and there may also be opportunities for local government to profit from the experience of the centre. The Cabinet Office consultation website[27] will be enhanced with selected material from local government; and events will be organised to bring consultation coordinators in departments in touch with local government counterparts. Local government has also been active in developing new approaches for the participation of children and young people in consultation and decision-making. In July the Local Government Association and the National Youth Agency (NYA), working with the Government's Children and Young People's Unit, published "Here by Right", guidance on setting standards for the active involvement of young people in democracy.[28] Local authorities working with the NYA will be promoting the standards throughout the autumn.


  30. More effective participation is essential to developing better policy and services, to increasing trust between the citizen and the Government at all levels—and so to increasing engagement with the process of government among voters. There has undoubtedly been in progress in recent years—in finding better techniques of participation, but even more importantly instilling the understanding that it is necessary. We need to learn from the best of what is happening across the United Kingdom and beyond, develop expertise, harness new technology—discriminatingly, where it can make a real contribution to better participation. The Government welcomes public debate on these issues and believes the Committee's report will play an important role in furthering it.

15 OCTOBER 2001

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Prepared 7 November 2001