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Consultation on consultation

December 12, 2012

As well as being publication date for the draft Finance Bill clauses for 2013, yesterday also saw the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee hearing on the government’s quiet announcement that they were abolishing the 12 week expectation for consultations.

Oliver Letwin gave evidence and I’m sorry to have to confess that I am sad enough that I was quite looking forward to watching the recording.  Indeed the http://www.parliament.uk website includes what purports to be a link to the recording, but it simply takes you to the front page of the parliament video and audio site.

So I rang them up, and a very helpful gentleman had a look for the footage for me, and then emailed back a few moments later to say

Thank you for your telephone call just now in relation to the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee of yesterday.

Unfortunately due to a recording failure it is not currently possible to put a recording of this hearing on the http://www.parliamentlive.tv website.

We are hopeful of being able to obtain an audio recording of this hearing within the next day or so, which we will be able to place online.

When it is available we will send you an email to notify you of the link.

I apologise for any inconvenience in relation to this.

All kudos to the administration, at least to this part of it.  When I asked if it was ok to reproduce the email here, I was told

Of course.  We are hopeful of being able to obtain the hearing within the next day so.  Also a transcript of hearings are available from the committee website within a few days.

So there we are.  Let’s await the audio recording and the transcript before developing our conspiracy theories about the failure of the video!  Anyway, I heard from the committee that my email to them was “received” but that whether it was accepted as evidence would be notified to me separately if the committee decided to accept it as such.  Since I haven’t heard anything, I presume it wasn’t accepted as evidence, although clearly this is some use of the word “evidence” that I’m not quite getting.  However apparently they received a LOT of submissions:

The Call for Evidence for the Committee’s inquiry into the Government’s policy on consultations has now closed.

The Committee received 550 submissions, including 477 emails from individuals who made submissions for the inquiry following an online campaign by the Institute of Employment Rights. The members of the Committee were informed of this in a note. They are grateful to the many members of the public who took time to give an indication of their views, and regret that it is not possible to acknowledge each submission.

so I’m guessing I should be grateful they actually acknowledged mine!

I concentrated on the idea that consultations could take place in as little as two weeks, and suggested they hadn’t got the digital infrastructure in place to do that yet.  First, before abolishing the twelve week limit, I suggested they needed to

  • set up a single website listing all open consultations
  • list consultations in order of closure date
  • push consultations via a dedicated twitter feed
  • push consultation closure reminders via a dedicated twitter feed
  • provide an RSS feed from the central consultation website
  • duplicate the open consultation list on a facebook page
  • use search engine optimisation tools to put consultations into other relevant hands

If you want to read the full text of what I sent to the committee, it’s here under the cut: 

  1. I am writing in response to the call for evidence on the Government’s new approach to consultations
  2. Until April of this year I was the Impact Assessment programme manager in the Better Regulation team in HMRC.  I am now a PhD student at Sheffield University, writing a thesis on tax simplification and better regulation.  I also write a blog about tax consultations, at http://tiintax.com
  3. In summary, I am writing to suggest that the government does not appear to have put in place the necessary infrastructure to allow for a flexible consultation process, digital by default, which might last for as little as two weeks.  I have two suggestions: firstly some general steps for enabling digital consultation, and secondly a proposal that the government put resource into consultation with small business.
  4. I suggest the minimum necessary steps the government needs to take to make consultation “digital by default” a reality are as follows.  In my view this digital infrastructure needs to be in place before the twelve week expectation can be safely abandoned.  The steps are:
  • set up a single website listing all open consultations
  • list consultations in order of closure date
  • push consultations via a dedicated twitter feed
  • push consultation closure reminders via a dedicated twitter feed
  • provide an RSS feed from the central consultation website
  • duplicate the open consultation list on a facebook page
  • use search engine optimisation tools to put consultations into other relevant hands
  1. To expand this a little, then, first of all there is no central source of information on what consultations are scheduled, open or coming to an end.  I strongly believe that in the 21st Century it should be possible for the government to have a single website listing its open consultations in the order in which they close.  This would, for example, enable someone going on holiday for a fortnight to be assured that an issue vital to them wasn’t going to be decided in their absence.  Currently the publications page on the new gov.uk website only covers two departments but includes open consultations on a mixed list of consultations and responses, guidance and statistics – and they are ordered by date of publication.  Even this is a small improvement on the direct.gov offering, which was a page that simply listed different government departments’ consultation pages.  Trying to find a consultation in my own specialism, tax, meant you needed to look on the Treasury list, the HMRC list, or on the separate pdf “tax tracker” list – and, again, they were ordered by date of publication rather than closure.
  2. Secondly, if the government is serious about making consultations “digital by default”, then it needs to use “push” rather than “pull” mechanisms to disseminate them.  In other words, to make use of the digital technology available to put consultations into people’s hands at a time when they can make use of them rather than expecting them to seek them out for themselves.  At present the expectation that consultations will last for twelve weeks allows for interested parties to learn about consultations indirectly, for example via trade or professional organisations or from lobby groups. If that is not to be the case then in my view there should be a @GovConsult twitter feed which pushes links to consultations towards interested parties on the day they are published, and a @GovRemind feed which reminds them again a week before the closing date.  An RSS feed (which would notify subscribers of updates to the central consultation page) and a Facebook page should in my view be set up with the same information, so that there is a single authoritative source of information, but that information is then “pushed” to anyone who is digitally connected, so that they can readily find information about open consultations on a platform they already use.
  3. It is also important that, since people “don’t know what they don’t know”, that people are able to come across consultations serendipitously – so that, for example, you don’t have to be a better regulation policy wonk to know there is a government consultation on changing the VAT rate on cable car transport.  If you have an interest in cable cars you should come across the consultation in, say, looking for the ordinary words on google.  This could be achieved by using the ordinary language in the metadata of the web page where the consultation is launched.  That particular consultation doesn’t come up in the first 42 pages of google searches, presumably because the words used are “VAT on cable-suspended transport” rather than the ordinary language of “cable cars”.  There are recognised search optimisation tools which could help put open consultations where they are more likely to be seen by people interested in the topic but not aware of the consultation; the government should, in my view, be using these before changing the current rules.
  4. A more difficult topic is, what about small businesses?  One of the more interesting tools in the Better Regulation toolkit was the Small Firms Impact Test .  Although the requirement to think about small firms is written into Statutory Instrument Practice and it remains a mandatory part of the Explanatory Memorandum, the instructions to civil servants on how to consult with small business seem to have been quietly archived.
  5. There is a cost to business in responding to consultations, which can more readily be absorbed by large businesses and trade associations than by small and micro businesses.  Small business proprietors cannot realistically be expected to take time out, in office hours, to travel to London, to talk to civil servants.  Best practice in conducting a proper small firms impact test would be for the policy team to go out, proactively, and talk out of hours to a volunteer sample of affected small businesses.  However this puts the expense of the consultation onto the government department rather than onto the affected businesses – and so in times of austerity is easily dropped.
  6. My solution to this issue would be for the government to fund the small firms impact test.  This would involve providing funds either to the BIS Enterprise Directorate, to individual Departments’ Better Regulation teams, or to an external provider such as a market research organisation, in order to conduct proper research into small business impacts from policy changes that were subject to consultation.  Until the digital infrastructure described in paras 3-6 are in place it seems to me that a small amount of “seed corn” funding to assess the impact of changes in policy on small firms would be a reasonable investment.

Wendy Bradley

http://tiintax.com

Additional information:

I have written about examples of what seem to me to be good and bad consultations on my blog.  Case studies the committee might find useful:

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