by Jackie Caine, Science Policy Officer at the Society of Biology
Earlier in the year, the Cabinet Office announced a change in the guidance for government departments and other public bodies when engaging stakeholders in policy making. These Consultation Principles aim to achieve engagement by relieving some of the processes which they feel have become bureaucratic, including allowing more flexibility in the standard 12 week consultation period.
One of the main ways the Society of Biology works with government is through these departmental consultations, collating evidence and expert advice from our membership. This could be on anything within the life-sciences including changes to Higher Education, research funding, food production policy, human health or environmental policy. We therefore have a keen interest in how government consultations are run, particularly the amount of time we are given to respond, how stakeholders are made aware of the consultation, and how recommendations are taken into account.
The Society wrote to the Minister for Government Policy at the Cabinet Office Oliver Letwin explaining our concerns with the new Consultation Principles in October, and responded to a call for evidence on the practicalities of the principles from the Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee.
Yesterday the Minister sat before the Lords Committee to answer their questions about the principles. He emphasised that the principles were still a ‘work in progress’, designed to encourage departments to think in the right ‘spirit’ of consultations, rather than to over specify how consultations are run, which he said, risks departments ‘sticking by the letter of the law’ and not going further to engage stakeholder views.
The minister was keen to promote the importance of early engagement and pro-active engagement. He said that consultations should not be undertaken to collect a wide range of views, but to allow those who will be impacted by the policy change an avenue to express this to government, and that the principle of proportionality is key; i.e. the timing and degree of stakeholder engagement should be proportionate to how much impact the policy change will have on affected groups. He also added that departments already had a degree of flexibility before the new principles were announced, stating that the average consultation period was 10.5 weeks (not the recommended 12 weeks) prior to the new principles, dropping to an average of 8.5 weeks after the principles were introduced.
The Committee raised specific points on the lack of guidance on post-consultation feedback, and when inquiries are scheduled. They asked for any analysis of consultation responses to be put in the public domain, and noted their concern with the ‘digital by default’ recommendation that is likely to exclude hard to reach groups. The Committee were also concerned that the new principles allowed too much departmental discretion, leaving stakeholders with little control where previously the consultation process was predictable and able to be planned for. They asked for a mechanism for notifying stakeholders about consultations, and for a degree of consistency across departments.
There will be a review of the principles in July 2013, which the Committee asked to be carried out independently. The Society of Biology will be monitoring consultations and our ability to respond to them. For more information on our consultations, please see our Science Policy pages.