When Bad Consultation Leads to Bad Policy
21 November 2011 at 10:50 am
Governments around Australia need to really listen to their constituents, and ensure that ‘consultation’ doesn’t become a decorative process to legitimise a predetermined set of actions, says CEO of the Community Council for Australia, David Crosbie. This article is taken from the CSI Blog.
When Mark Butler was first appointed Minister for Mental Health he asked my advice about what his immediate priorities might be. My response was that he needed to listen to mental health consumers and carers from around Australia before making any decisions. Meeting people where they are, hearing their stories and experiences, seeking to make sense of their perspectives, these are the processes that inform good policy. In his first few months, Minister Butler spent considerable time touring across Australia listening. He then shifted the debate about responding to mental health issues beyond the existing health system myopia.
We used to call this process ‘consultation’. It was a way of learning what the issues are and how they impact on people. It was very much a ground up, tell us what you think approach. The process did not need large discussion papers to read, options to consider, strategies already on the table. It was always about listening, and most importantly, it was about showing you had heard.
The benefits of good consultation are well documented. If you listen to the people who matter, you are more likely to develop effective strategies that both work better and can be sustained over time.
Unfortunately the term consultation has been progressively bastardised by an ongoing series of predetermined, closed option, pseudo-neo-quasi engagement strategies designed almost exclusively to satisfy a symbolic process requirement. This approach adopts a simple method: consult – then do exactly what you were going to do before you consulted with one or two minor concessions. It is a little like putting a condom on after sex so that you can say you used one.
It is important to point out that I am not opposed to predetermined consultation – it has its place. For instance, as a parent I find the predetermined consultation quite a useful strategy because if you play it right the child thinks what you are doing – and what you were always going to do – is really their idea.
The problem is when predetermined consultation is paraded as genuine consultation. Unfortunately, this masquerade has become the prime time ‘consultation’ show in town.
For most people working in the Not for Profit sector, the term consultation now carries more negative connotations than your average swear word. It is seen as creating a lot of new work, but providing a very limited return.
The Federal Government Office of Best Practice Regulation has published a set of Consultation Principles that include the requirements for continuity; targeting; timeliness; accessibility; transparency; consistency and flexibility; evaluation and review.
Of course there is no evaluation or review of how these consultation principles are being implemented. In practice they exist as words only, and without any required application or monitoring, they remain largely decorative.
The Commonwealth Ombudsman drew upon their experience of over 39,000 complaints to make five key recommendations about how governments could improve service delivery. Number three in these recommendations was to ‘Consult with key stakeholder groups before implementation, not afterwards.’
Under the National Compact, the Federal government and the Not for Profit sector committed to work together to change the way consultations are conducted, to make them more respectful and to create new ways of engaging. There is still a lot of work to do here, but the government has at least started to engage with Not for Profits through the National Compact website.
The bottom line is that for as long as we continue to develop policy as a reaction to perceived problems with very little real analysis or active engagement of those involved, we will continue to develop very poor policies that often break down once implemented.
There are many forms of citizen engagement emerging around the world, some offering real promise in terms of improved effectiveness and sustainability of (government) programs and services. These strategies are not just about using new technologies or communications. A recent paper by Brenton Holmes from the Parliamentary Library highlighted these trends in the following terms:
‘The theory and practice of public administration is increasingly concerned with placing the citizen at the centre of policymakers’ considerations, not just as target, but also as agent. … Concepts such ‘co-creation’ and ‘co-production’ have emerged to describe this systematic pursuit of sustained collaboration between government agencies, non-government organisations, communities and individual citizens.’
All governments in Australia would do well to examine the way they currently approach consultation and consider adopting a fundamental principle: consultation should inform major policy commitments and implementation strategies, and not become a decorative process to legitimise a predetermined set of actions.
If we want better government, better policies, better programs and services, we need to move beyond the technocrat knows best approach and engage in consultation that moves beyond the standard tin ear tick the box process.
David Crosbie is CEO of the Community Council for Australia, an independent member-based organisation dedicated to building flourishing communities primarily by enhancing the extraordinary work of the Not for Profit sector in Australia.
The CSI blog aims to provide a forum for discussion and debate on topics related to social impact. The blog features regular posts by CSI staff, as well as pieces by guest bloggers. Selected blog posts are re-published by Pro Bono Australia News – to visit the CSI blog visit www.csi.edu.au/site/Home/Blog.aspx