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It’s all in the …. timing

Posted by on October 22, 2013

Jackie Caine, Senior Science Policy Adviser at the Society of Biology, discusses why changes to the length of consultation periods is so important. Parliament

Back in 2012 the Cabinet Office introduced new principles by which to consult the public and other stakeholders on changes to policy and new legislation.

The consultation process is important, as it allows all those who will be affected by a particular policy change, or have a professional or personal interest in it, to put forward their views, concerns and recommendations to government. These consultation responses should then help to inform the development of the policy.

The consultation principles introduced last year highlight a few things that are vital for a rigorous consultation process: identifying which stakeholders need early engagement,  being clear about which aspects of the policy have already been decided and which are subject to change, and providing feedback.

But they also state that the minimum12 week consultation period set out in the previous Code of Practice on Consultation is no longer needed, and that consultations can be as short as two weeks.

The Society of Biology raised concerns about this change in guidance last year. We have committed significant staff resource to policy issues that involve bioscientific expertise (e.g. vaccinations for bovine TB), and to issues that affect the bioscience community (e.g. the national curriculum, or the role of women in STEM careers). Our policy team collates evidence and expertise and drafts responses to consultations. We have also provided verbal evidence to select committees, and we sit on a range of committees and task groups that review and discuss long term policy issues.

Any policy that needs consultation is likely have an element of complexity and perhaps contention between different stakeholder groups, and even within a group or community there may be different opinions. Gathering evidence, reviewing documents and providing sensible and justifiable policy recommendations can be a lengthy process. And that’s before you’ve asked for expert approval of the draft response.  All of this takes time, and should take time, if those undertaking policy development are conscientious and offer well thought out, reliable policy changes.

The Society wanted to know if, a year after the new consultation principles, if the time for consultations has decreased, and if this has had an effect on our ability to respond to them. We carried out some research of our own, and found since the new Consultation Principles were published, for consultations relevant to us:

  • The number lasting less than 6 weeks has increased from 4.5% to 18.9%.
  • The percentage lasting at least 12 weeks has fallen from 59% to 35%.
  • The mean duration has fallen from 10.8 weeks to 9.2 weeks.

We have written to the Cabinet Office and others with our concerns and evidence, and we await the findings of the independent panel set up to look at how these consultation principles are faring. We hope to hear from them soon and will keep you informed.

For more information on the Society’s Science Policy work, reports and events, see our policy pages.

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