Local Government Consultation (HC 316-iii)
ODPM Committee 8 Mar 2004
Evidence given by Phil Hope MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, and Mr Ashley Pottier, Team Leader, Democracy and Local Government Unit, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.
Q269 Mr. David Clelland: While I agree with what you have said, the consultation is not intended to be a referendum on decision-making. Perhaps because of that - we all know this from our own experience - there is a great deal of cynicism around about consultation. People often feel, "Whatever I say it is not going to influence the council," and in any case people go into these things thinking, "The decision has already been taken. This is just a paper exercise." Have you experienced that cynicism? If so, what do we do about it? How can we help local authorities overcome that?
Phil Hope: I do recognise that problem. It is important that where a council really has made a decision, then to go out to consultation, as it were, as a cover for a decision that it has already made does not fool anybody, least of all those people being consulted, and it would not be an appropriate thing to do. If councils have already consulted and made a decision, then to go out to consultation again, as it were, to affirm a decision they have already made,. and then it does not go the way they want it to, we see where that takes you. I do not think that is a very effective form of consultation at all. How do you prevent that? I think the guidelines that we have published as Government are helpful, in the sense of being very clear about why you are consulting, why you are consulting and to what time scale, being clear about the purpose of the consultation up front, feeding back the results and then showing in your decision how that consultation has influenced or not influenced, depending on the outcome of the decision, and the reasons why. I think it was the Audit Commission who identified four or five critical success factors for a good consultation process, and one is, first and foremost, a commitment to the user, a commitment to consulting people and then building in key elements of, in particular, communicating well how the information will be conveyed and how it will influence the decisions. If that is not done, that is when I think problems can happen. It might be that consultation at the council level is better as a strategic activity but individual decisions, in the way that we might be thinking about, could lead councils into some difficulty, and it needs to be carefully thought through what is appropriate for individual decisions.
Q270 Sir Paul Beresford: Really we need to send that answer to the mayor of London, do we?
Phil Hope: I think I have tried to deal with the question of the mayor for London earlier. I understand your concerns about that. I would say that the mayor for London's consultation was genuine. The responses were properly considered and the decision made by the mayor of London was for the mayor of London. As I say, he will or will not receive the outcome of his accountability for that at the ballot box, and of course he has already been successful.
Q271 Mr. David Clelland: On that sort of example, where the local authority goes out to consultation and reaches the view that the overall opinion that those who are being consulted is not in line with what the council thinks properly ought to be done - like, for instance, the Congestion Charge - is policy that there should be better explanation given as to why the decision has gone a particular way regardless of what the consultation outcome was?
Phil Hope: If there is a direction of travel that the council has already taken and it is minded to take and it is consulting during that, if it says that in advance then people know where they stand. Ideally, consultation should be open - nothing ruled out and everything ruled in and then a decision being made. But if a council has already made a decision and wants to consult on the details of that decision and the way forward, then I think they should be up front about that because to do otherwise would be to run the risks you have just described.
Q272 Mr. David Clelland: If the council has not made a decision, goes to consultation, gets the consultation, considers it, sits down with the officers and works out all the options, and says, "Regardless of this, we think is in the best interests to go this way," is the council then obliged to go back to the people involved?
Phil Hope: I certainly think it is good practice to go back. Certainly when I was a borough councillor and county councillor myself we did exactly that: having heard all the views, summed them up and done the analysis, then to say to the groups we consulted, "On balance, taking into account this guidance, these priorities, our views, the different views out in the community, here is the decision we have made. Here, on the balance of all those factors, including the views of the people we have consulted, we have come to this decision." With an honest process of doing that, people will then say, "Okay, they have made a decision that I did not agree with but I can see how they have arrived at that decision. I feel I have been properly treated as a consultee in that process." I just want to say, that is not an obligation and the guidance is only guidance.
Q273 Mr. David Clelland: But that sort of practice would build up the confidence of people in the consultation process and therefore dispel the kind of criticism referred to.
Phil Hope: I think that would and I think there has been evidence that is exactly what it does do. I can understand that maybe that asks councillors to do one more step, as it were, but all the evidence is that where that step is taken better decisions are made, because there is better clarity but also because more people have faith in the system.
Q277 Mr. David Clelland: One of the Round Six Beacon themes is Getting Closer to Communities. When the local authorities came before us they did not seem to be too clear as to how this might benefit local government. Can you say why this particular theme was chosen and how it is going to help local authorities to improve their quality and value of the consultations they undertake?
Phil Hope: The Beacon scheme has been very successful - this is Round Six we are talking about now - in identifying an area of good practice, encouraging applications for Beacon status and then spreading that more generally. We have chosen this theme because we do want to see, as I said, in terms of the local vision for local government and the ten-year strategy, this whole area of consultation, community engagement - everything from information providing through to consultation and active involvement in decision-making - to be a feature of how local government begins to look in the future. There is now, I think, sufficient good practice for us to launch this Beacon scheme, because then we can try to identify what it is that people are doing. In fact, there is a lot of good practice out there that does not often get captured: people are doing it but they do not tell each other that they are doing it. It is one of my big frustrations.
Q281 Mr. David Clelland: I am not sure if that answers the question. Why was that particular theme chosen? How will it help local authorities improve their performance in their areas?
Mr Pottier: Quite why the theme was chosen, I do not know. In terms of the benefit, one thing we are clear about is that some local authorities do consultation very well and there are others who clearly do not. There is good practice that can be spread and the key message for the Beacon theme is actually about helping local authorities learn from each other. So there are people doing it well. They apply and get a Beacon award, then they have that for a year and their task is to disseminate the good things they are doing to the weaker authorities. We have seen over four or five years now that there is quite a benefit that comes from them.
Phil Hope: Could I answer the question about why we chose the theme, Chairman?
Chairman: I am a little worried, that if we are going to get through all the questions we will need shorter questions and answers.
Q297 Mr. David Clelland: We have been discussing how spreading best practice between local authorities might improve standards in consultation. As we know, they can vary greatly, but there is also a difference in standard often within the local authority between departments. Are these methods which we have been discussing going to improve standards across the board?
Phil Hope: Yes. I would hope - and again other members here have served on local authorities - that elected officers and senior officers who can see something working well in one department might well say that we could apply that to other parts of the process.
Q298 Mr. David Clelland: Do we have examples of this happening in practice?
Mr Pottier: Good question. One example of which I am aware is in fact in Lewisham - one of the groups you spoke to last week - where they have pulled a number of people into a strategic consultation group, so that they can look across the piece as to what is happening in the local authority, to try to ensure best practice in all departments and pull together all the consultation they have done to get the strategic messages out of it.
Q299 Mr. David Clelland: Is that the best practice we would like to spread to other local authorities? What mechanism is there for doing that?
Mr Pottier: Certainly it is something we would welcome, but whether it will necessarily work in every locality I think is an interesting question. One of the things for Lewisham is that they have a directly elected mayor which is a little bit different. Local authorities need to come up with an approach which works for them. That is one example which has been brought forward. But, again, I would not want to be prescriptive, but, yes, I think that is an element of good practice, particularly the bit where you can pull together consultations from across an authority and pull out the strategic messages, because with departments working in silos you can risk that not happening.
Q307 Mr. David Clelland: Do you know how many staff are involved or are spending a significant amount of their time on consultation activities? Do you know what the average expenditure on consultation by local authorities is? In other words, is the bureaucracy and the expenditure providing value for money? How do you measure that?
Mr Pottier: In short, we do not have that information. To come back to a comment that was made in terms of the staffing, to some extent actually local authorities will not necessarily use their own staff on consultation, they will bring in experts who are far better equipped at consultation. In a sense, collecting a figure about the number of staff on consultation may not help.
Q308 Chairman: Buying in does not guarantee that it is good value for money, does it? That was the question.
Phil Hope: Sure. I understand there is a figure of around 5,000 local authority employees that may be directly involved in this kind of activity, but I do not think that does take into account the point you are making, Chairman. Certainly, a service which is being reviewed in terms of best value has to include consultation as part of the best value process of ensuring a service has been delivered to best value. So consultation is not an option; it is an integral part of how you go about ensuring a service does give you best value. We do not collect the data centrally, however, on how every local authority is doing that, and there is a balance to be reached about not imposing too many requirements on, as it were, collecting information that becomes a burden on local authorities. Indeed, we are trying reduce the burden on local authorities for collecting data. That may be one area where we would not want to put in place a major data collection exercise for wish not to impose a burden on local authorities.
Q309 Mr. David Clelland: So consultation is an absolute principle.
Phil Hope: It is a principle that when you review a service to ensure a service is giving best value. I cannot conceive of how you can do that without asking the user in some shape or form what they think about the service and what improvements then would like. Otherwise you could redesign your whole service in a way that completely missed the interests and needs of the user. For me, it has to be an integral part of the process for ensuring the service is best value.
Q314 Mr. David Clelland: You are saying that whatever the cost of the consultation exercise, the government will provide the money.
Phil Hope: No. There is a process for assessing burdens. This is a process of discussion and negotiation with the local authority OGA. In that discussion - and we have had many differences - we eventually reach an agreement and then that is reflected in the settlement that the local authorities receive each year.
Mr Pottier: In a number of areas where local strategic partnerships are working well, you may undertake a consultation exercise which is not only funded by the local authority but also the Police and Health Authority will also contribute to the consultation you are taking part in.
This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.
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