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Civil Service

Consultations - what’s new and why they are so important

Sir Jeremy at the Civil Service Board meeting, January 2015
Sir Jeremy Heywood

Consultation is one of the most important activities government can undertake. By consulting effectively we improve both the making of policy and its implementation.  So, it is essential we get it right. And that’s why we have published updated consultation principles.

The consultation principles were introduced in 2012, as part of the Government’s push to increase transparency and improve engagement with key groups. They provide guidance to departments to ensure consultations are both effective and proportional to the potential impacts of the proposal being made.

The principles have played a key role in the success of consultations over the last four years but, as with any guidance, they must be refreshed from time to time. The new principles are simpler to use, more focused and encourage the use of more modern methods of engagement. They are a call to all parts of the Civil Service to adopt the practices of the departments who are leading the way on consultation.

Innovative tools

One such example is the excellent work by BIS to engage with the communities or groups being consulted, both before the launch of any formal consultations and in real time as they progress. Their consultation on consumer switching saw ministers and officials partnering with Which? and Moneysavingexpert to communicate key messages and drive engagement. And BIS have used a range of innovative digital tools - including blogs, live chats and online communities -  to connect with stakeholders on issues as diverse as Shared Parental Leave, how the science budget should be spent, and the sharing economy.

In Defra, consultation policy has been guided by an informal external advisory stakeholder group to help them better understand the experience of consultations from the user perspective. Through this partnership, Defra has improved both the  management and delivery of its consultations. One particular success story has been the use of digital crowdsourcing to facilitate early and sustained engagement with stakeholders, including for a consultation on Import Controls for Live Animals.

DCMS has also used technology to increase its engagement with the public. The department launched an informal call via Twitter for ideas on a forthcoming UK Digital Strategy. It secured a Top 5 spot in UK Twitter trends, with the dedicated #UKDigiStrategy hashtag appearing in 1,566 tweets, and an estimated reach of 16.3 million views. DCMS also broke records with its consultation on the future of the BBC. This received almost 200,000 responses, demonstrating how accessible and far-reaching their consultations have become.

The reward

There are many other examples of excellent consultations from across government, and I encourage anyone who has been involved in one to share their experiences in the comments section below. Through sharing best practice and by following the new principles, we can ensure that all consultations are of the highest quality.

The reward for this couldn’t be greater: effective consultations mean effective policies that are practical to implement. So, this is not simply about Open Government, it is also crucial to our efforts to provide the best possible service to the public.

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